Guilty until proven innocent: The system can improve

Claude McCollum Lawsuit

January 20, 2008

Until September 2007, Claude McCollum was one of what some experts estimate are as many as 5,000prisoners wrongfully convicted in Michigan. The State Journal investigated the circumstances surrounding McCollum’s murder investigation, conviction and release.

Here’s what we found:

Tracking evidence

Better tracking of evidence as it passes from police to prosecutors and then to defense attorneys could allow the public to see when justice isn’t properly served. Defendants are entitled to review the evidence against them. If they don’t know what evidence exists, they won’t know if they didn’t receive it. A jury in the McCollum case never heard about a key Michigan State Police report. That report suggested McCollum was not near the crime scene when a Lansing Community College professor was murdered. Jurors convicted McCollum of killing her, and that conviction later was thrown out.

Ingham County prosecutors don’t record receipt of all the reports they receive. Since the summer of 2007, months before McCollum’s conviction began to fall apart, the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office has been developing a computerized system that will track when evidentiary reports are received and turned over to defense attorneys.

Compatibility problems with the county’s current computer system are delaying implementation.

Videotape interrogations

Complete videotaping of police interrogations might preserve the context in which a suspect’s statement is given. Police are not required to tape interrogations, although some of them in Michigan do. Currently, there are statewide and nationwide movements to force departments to record these interactions.

Attorney wages

Court-appointed attorneys often don’t receive a per-hour wage comparable to what private lawyers receive. Experts say court-appointed attorneys can end up earning about $15 per hour. Some lawyers speculate that an underfunded system might contribute to inadequate defense of the poor. The State Bar of Michigan is co-sponsoring a study looking into the quality of public defense in Michigan. The study is due out by mid-spring.

What’s next

Possible lawsuit: Hugh Clarke Jr. is expected to file a lawsuit on behalf of Claude Zain-Shahee McCollum, who was convicted in 2006 of a murder he did not commit.

Investigation: The state attorney general’s office

is investigating the circumstances surrounding the McCollum investigation and trial. The attorney general’s office won’t comment on the investigation, which was requested by Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III.

Claude McCollum Lawsuit