Locked up for life, they were found guilty of murders they didn’t commit. They almost gave up hope of ever regaining their freedom, but a final appeal to a specialized team of attorneys and investigators in Wayne County has changed everything.
“I love it. I can’t imagine a better job in the world than everyday coming into work, picking up case files and looking for the truth,” said Director Valerie Newman.
Since the start of this year, her special team of prosecutors and investigators have made history.
As part of the state’s first conviction integrity unit, they are working to get justice for the wrongfully convicted.
“Stuff I went through in prison, I don’t want nobody to go through that,” said Aaron Salter, who served 15 years for murder.
He was just 21 years old, and a college football player with a bright future. But, a shooting of four people outside a home on Detroit’s east side changed everything. Detectives zeroed in on Salter for the deadly shooting, and a jury found him guilty after his former attorney failed to do a thorough job.
“Even when they looked back at his notes 15 years later, he still had two of my alibi witnesses he never even investigated,” Salter said.
Shuffled between state prisons, his countless appeals failed until a federal defender turned his case over to the CIU.
“Aaron Salter’s case is more troubling from my perspective,” Newman said. “Everyone we talked to knew who the real perpetrator was, and the eye witness identified someone who could not have been there.”
Salter’s new personal attorney Wolfgang Mueller calls the work of the CIU and Salter’s exoneration remarkable work.
“The speed they’re working at and results they’re getting is truly impressive,” Mueller said.
In just 10 months there have been two men exonerated and two others granted a new trial based on new evidence.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy says a federal grant and support from the county has helped make the important work possible. One man was exonerated after 45 years, another granted a new trial after 34.
“As a prosecutor's office, you can’t be afraid to look at the work you’ve done as a prosecutor’s office – even if its way back to your predecessors, I still think we should take a look,” Worthy said.
In Salter’s case, the actual shooter has now been identified, another accomplishment by the CIU.
“It gives me hope that the court system that’s bogged down in procedure has a second avenue, and it's a shorter route to freedom” Mueller said.
Prosecutor Kym Worthy says she’s committed to raising awareness about this important program and expanding the unit to be able to help more people.