WSW: The Innocence Project And One Man's Long Path To Freedom

Jul 3, 2017

LeDura Watkins leaves the Wayne County Jail after he was released
Credit Courtesy of the Western Michigan University Cooley School Innocence Project / Western Michigan University Cooley Law School

A Detroit man spent over 41 years in prison. In June, he became a free man and his conviction was vacated thanks in large part to the work of the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Innocence Project. LeDura Watkins was convicted of first degree murder in 1976.


The director of the Innocence Project Marla Mitchell-Cichon says there were three key pieces of evidence against Watkins - hair samples, which has since been shown to be unreliable, an unindicted co-defendant, who recanted within five years of the conviction and a police file never turned over to the defense that contained favorable information about Watkins. Mitchell-Cichon joined WMUK’s Gordon Evans to discuss the Watkins case and the work of trying to free people who have been wrongfully convicted.

Mitchell-Cichon says several techniques used as evidence over the years are no longer viewed as scientific. She says the hair evidence used against Watkins, like bite comparisons, no longer have scientific support among law enforcement officials. 

"The Courts have to be more receptive, particularly when someone's claiming innocence to looking at the case again, which is not how the criminal justice system is set up."

The WMU Cooley Law School Innocence Project focuses on DNA evidence. Mitchell-Cichon says that over the years that evidence has shown that people are wrongfully convicted at a rate that’s “higher than we would have expected.” Mitchell-Cichon says the Innocence Project has screened over 5500 cases since 2001.

“We often reject cases where perhaps we feel… or even some facts suggest to us that that person is innocent.”

After someone is convicted, Mitchell-Cichon says the appeal process focuses on legal errors. She says

“The Courts have to be more receptive, particularly when someone’s claiming innocence to looking at the case again, which is not how the criminal justice system is set up.”

Marla Mitchell-Cichon (front center) and the rest of the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School Innocence Project Team
Credit Courtesy of Western Michigan University Cooley Law School / Western Michigan University Cooley Law School

After exoneration, Mithcell-Cichon says it’s a huge challenge for someone to put their life back together. Both of LeDura Watkins’ parents died while he was in prison, and he has no family in Detroit area. Mitchell-Cichon says that complicates basic questions like where to stay, eat and get medical treatment

Michigan’s wrongful imprisonment compensation act went into effect in March. Mitchell-Cichon says now someone exonerated can get assistance for housing, job training and other services. She says someone like LeDura Watkins can file a claim in the Court of Claims and could be awarded up to $50,000 for each year he was in prison.