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A Raw Look at the Michigan Parole Board

dsandersportrait4In the past two years, I have attended three Michigan Parole and Commutation Board hearings. What I witnessed shocked me.

Hearings are not trials and I guess that one should not expect the same level of due process found in the courtroom.  But the current process makes no pretense of any fairness whatsoever and the playing field between the board and the attorney generals lawyer versus the prisoner is decidedly not level.  The state’s attorney is there only to prosecute, not to pursue real justice.  The state’s attorney is just there to castigate the prisoner and can spend literally hours doing so while not allowing the prisoner to say a word or respond in any way.  The prisoner has no right to counsel and must rely on his or her own wits to try and defend themselves.  The prisoner also has few other rights and there is no requirement that he or she be informed ahead of time what will be presented in opposition to his request for pardon. Here are some other observations.

    1. The board wears two hats: They grant paroles and they recommend commutations or pardons.  But the board manifests a complete misunderstanding and confusion between the two roles. At times they would say they weren't going to address the issue of actual innocence.  Later they would ask questions about the prisoner’s innocence.  And at times they would ask the prisoner to express remorse for the crime they committed, when, if you are innocent that question makes no sense.
    2. There doesn't seem to be any clear criteria that the board uses in determining whether a commutation or pardon is warranted.  I’m not sure the board understands what they should be considering in innocence cases or how they should be basing their judgments. From sitting through these hearings I certainly have no idea what criteria or guidelines govern decision making when it comes to actual innocence.
    3. The board has unbalanced representation heavily weighted toward the corrections and law enforcement community.  On this 15 member board there is:
    4. The demeanor and actions of some board members in these three hearings was frankly appalling.  For example, at Temujin’s hearing some board members engaged in laughing and even yelling and their facial expressions would often express disdain for the prisoner. And their questioning at times was just plain bullying where they constantly put the person off balance and mocked or talked over attempts to answer their questions. They demanded that Temujin keep his cool when they couldn't keep their own.  You would think this board would be composed of only responsible people who would act professionally.  I was shocked by how unprofessional some members were.
    5. The board critically questioned what Temujin’s supporters testified to.  They expressed blatant skepticism and often tried to ridicule supporters.  A good example was the administrator of Temujin’s cell block who testified that Temujin was a model prisoner.  Some members tried to imply that she was saying that because she had a love affair with him. On the other hand, the folks testifying against Temujin got a total pass from the board.  Board members did not question the accuracy of their testimony or try to imply bias as they did with Temujin’s supporters.  In fact, board members encouraged them to say more bad things about him.
    6. Many board members come to hearings totally unprepared and not having read the case.  They ask basic questions that anyone with some familiarity with the case should know.  And being prepared for a commutation or pardon hearing should take much more than preparation for a parole hearing. A parole hearing tends to just focus on determining if the person has remorse, has paid sufficiently for the crime, and entry back into society would pose no risk.  An innocence claim is far more complex and should deserve more thorough review and consideration than the current state process provides.
    7. At the Tom Cress and Ray Gray hearings there was an appropriate level of security.  But at Temujin’s hearing the security detail was total overkill and I think designed to intimidate supporters and imply to others that Temujin was an extremely dangerous man.  There were several guards decked out in riot gear.  They were all in black, wearing helmets, and heavily armed.  They had automatic rifles and hand guns and god knows what other type of armament.  I guess they thought we were going to try and break Temujin out of prison or that he was going to go on a rampage.  It was incredible.
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At this point in our development, PI is only taking on cases in cooperation with other innocence projects. If you have been wrongfully convicted and your case involves DNA evidence, we recommend you contact the Cooley Innocence Project at Western Michigan Cooley Law School. If your case does not involve DNA, please contact the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. A third member of the Innocence Network is SADO, the State Appelate Defense Organization. For cases outside of Michigan, here is a list of innocence projects by state.