Friday, May 01, 2009

Case of Detroit man wrongfully convicted shows gaping flaws in state’s public defender system

When Walter Swift walked out of state prison after serving 26 years, he forgot what freedom felt like. Swift said he was “terrified” to face a world he had not seen in nearly three decades because most of his adult life was spent behind bars.

Due to an untrained public defender and a hurried investigation, Swift was convicted of a rape he says he didn’t commit. Last year, a judge set him free, citing major problems with his prosecution.

Before the conviction in 1982, Swift was a 21-year-old Detroit man with a two-year-old daughter and a fiancé. When police picked him up from his construction job for a lineup involving a rape case, he thought nothing of it because he knew he was innocent. “I had faith in the criminal justice system,” Swift told Michigan Messenger in a recent interview. But that faith would quickly dissolve when he was found guilty and sentenced to 55 years in prison.

Swift’s story exemplifies the problems with Michigan’s underfunded and strained public defense system, which has deteriorated to such a poor condition that a study conducted by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association in cooperation with the State Bar Association of Michigan labeled it a “constitutional crisis.”

Those who cannot afford their own attorney are at risk at living a legal nightmare. Swift, like many nationwide who have been wrongly convicted, had an incompetent public defender and his case was handled with appalling carelessness.

In May 2008, Swift was released after a judge ruled that the case against him was marred by botched evidence and a flawed investigation, something a better resourced attorney may have been able to use in his defense. Overall, Swift’s case points to the deep problems facing the state’s justice system. According to the National Legal Aid and Defender Association’s evaluation of Michigan’s public defender system, the state ranks 44th in public defense spending.

State Rep. Bob Constan, the Dearborn Heights Democrat who chairs subcommittee focused on indigent defense, said compensation formulas for public defenders were created decades ago and have never been updated. “When they do the budget that’s one area that doesn’t get any cost of living adjustments,” the lawmaker told Michigan Messenger.

The alarming workload and meager pay given to public defenders signals a grave problem for those who can’t afford their own attorney. Constan said he agreed that the current public defense system in dire need of reform. “We’re not meeting our constitutional obligations,” he said.

According to Constan, part of a bill being forged by his subcommittee may allocate defense funding on a state level instead of a county level, which would eliminate the funding disparity between jurisdictions. In the study, for Detroit, which is located in Wayne County, there are only five part-time public defenders who handle a workload of more than 2,400 cases a year, spending an average of 32 minutes on each case. The national standard for public defenders is 400 cases a year.....

On Friday, Swift will join Regina Daniels Thomas of the Legal Aid and Defender Association and Laura Sager director of the Michigan Campaign for Justice on a panel to discuss the problem and possible solutions. A justice forum will follow later in the afternoon featuring national speaker Ron Sullivan, director of the Harvard Criminal Justice Institute.

According to Sager, there is no state oversight on the delivery of public defense services in Michigan. Most other states have more established funding formulas. She said the Michigan Campaign for Justice has two major goals: to provide adequate statewide funding and establish state standards for public defense that are similar to national standards and the standards of the American Bar Association.....

Due to his many years of incarceration, Swift suffers from major depression and post traumatic stress disorder making it hard for him to function in social situations and impossible to hold a job — and that’s if he can get one. Swift said even though he was exonerated, his prison record is a scar that scares off employers.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” he said. “When these people are released from prison they try to get a job but it’s so hard they frustrated and turn back to what they know.” Because there are no compensation funds for those wrongfully convicted, Swift scrapes by on money raised with the help of Niamh Gunn, an Irish law student working with the Innocence Project, which was instrumental in winning his release.

When he was released from prison, Swift was homeless and neither the city nor the state did anything to compensate for Swift’s wrongful conviction. “If it was up to Detroit, I’d be sleeping under a bridge,” Swift said. “They didn’t even apologize. They do this to young black men all the time.”

Swift said his goal in life now is to make sure what happened to him does not happen to other people. “I want to be prominent and active in legislative reform and help men and women like myself,” he said. “They took this man’s life.”

More here

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