Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit using database to track improper use of informants

Posted at 7:16 PM, Jul 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-30 20:00:57-04

DETROIT (WXYZ) — "Let our innocent people go now. It's too many people to name," said Nakira Smith Bullard, the daughter of Larry Smith who was released from a Michigan prison earlier this year after spending 27 years behind bars.

Smith had been convicted in the 1994 murder of a man in Detroit, but the Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) examined his case and found that the jailhouse informant, who claimed Smith confessed to him, was discredited and suspected of fabricating information to gain favors from police in his own criminal case.

Larry Smith and his family have joined others who have been wrongfully convicted or exonerated in Wayne County in a push for increased funding so that Wayne County's CIU can increase their staffing level.

"Y'all putting money into everything else," Smith's daughter said. "Let our people go."

Currently, Wayne County's CIU, which is funded by the county and grants, has two full-time attorneys, two part-time attorneys, two full-time investigators, and one full-time administrative assistant.

They have received over 1,700 requests for investigation. Fifty cases are actively being investigated by the CIU.

Prosecutor Kym Worthy started the CIU in 2018 to investigate claims of innocence.

"We have a couple of cases where the police officer, the officer in charge, and others have lied about certain things that we found out later through the CIU investigation," Worthy said, adding that the improper use of police informants is something they're seeing more of as they investigate cases that are, sometimes, over ten and twenty years old.

As the CIU investigates claims of innocence, Worthy said they are keeping a database of police officers and informants to see if there's a pattern.

"And if we ever get to the point where we see those patterns developing from the cases that we are doing, then we will take some action on them," Worthy said.

Attorney Valerie Newman is the Director of Wayne County's CIU.

Newman told 7 Action News that they have to thoroughly investigate the cases and claims of innocence, talking to witnesses and reading everything related to the case.

"I could have all the people in the world, it's still gonna take time because we have to do everything ourselves," she said. "It would take a lot of resources to move through these cases and try and reduce that waiting period."

The work of Wayne County's CIU has led to nearly 30 people being granted relief from their convictions and prison.

"The Conviction Integrity Unit has made all the difference in the world, in terms of people really having a chance to get out," said Claudia Whitman of the National Capital Crime Assistance Network, a non-profit she formed to help people across the country who have been wrongfully convicted.

Whitman traveled to Michigan for the release of Danny Burton, one of the Michigan cases she's worked on.

Burton spent 32 years in prison and he was released after the CIU re-investigated his case and determined he had been wrongfully convicted.

"When we do succeed, it's fantastic," Whitman said. "You're giving somebody a chance to have their life back."