Washtenaw County creates Conviction Integrity and Expungement Unit to investigate wrongful convictions

The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners approved adding a full-time position to manage the Conviction Integrity and Expungement Unit this week.

The county's unit was temporarily set up in February. This resolution, which was unanimously approved by the Board, makes the unit permanent. 

Conviction Integrity Units help prevent false convictions and investigate allegations of false convictions. These investigations can lead to exonerations of people wrongly convicted. 

Many factors, including false confessions and official misconduct, can land innocent people in prison.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, these units assisted in securing 61 exonerations nationwide in 2020.

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Last year, Michigan had 20 exonerations, the second-highest in the United States. This was largely credited to Wayne County's CIU, which helped with 13 of those exonerations.

Michigan's Attorney General's Office also has a CIU. The unit, which was started in 2019, had its first exoneration this year. Gilbert Poole spent more than 30 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. 

DNA testing done after his conviction did not match his, so the AG's office was asked to review the case, leading to Poole's release from prison in the spring.

AG Dana Nessel said Poole was the first exoneration from a state-wide conviction integrity unit in the country.

Fifteen people have already reached out to Washtenaw County to ask to have their case reviewed, Prosecutor Eli Savit said.

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You can apply to have your case or the case of a loved one reviewed here.

Washtenaw County's unit also handles expungements. The county has been working to help people clear their criminal records. 

Thanks to laws that with into effect earlier this year, some crimes are eligible to be expunged from records.

MORE: How to have your criminal record expunged

Expungement means that the crime does not appear publicly, and you do not need to disclose it. This means that if you apply for a job, home rental, or assistance, the crime will not show up on a background check. It can still be viewed by law enforcement and other officials.

"Not one of us should be forced to live in the shadows of yesterday," said Chief Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Victoria Burton-Harris. "When you expunge a criminal record, that opens up so many doors for you."

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Criminal records can bar people from receiving state aid, finding jobs, and living in public housing.

Washtenaw County has held nearly 10 expungement fairs since February to determine if people are eligible to have their records expunged and provide assistance with applying for an expungement.

Find upcoming expungement events here.