Michigan made history yesterday with the nation’s first exoneration by a state-wide Conviction Integrity Unity (CIU). Gilbert Lee Poole was exonerated after 32 years of wrongful imprisonment.
What is a State-wide Conviction Integrity Unit?
In a rare appearance at a hearing like this, the first person to speak was Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel who put into perspective the historic and vital nature of a state-wide Conviction Integrity Unit. In response to a steady increase in the number of convictions overturned by
innocence organizations, Conviction Integrity Units (CIUs) have been popping up all over the country. Instead of facing the embarrassment of having convictions overturned and revealing that prosecutors have convicted innocent people, many
of the better-funded counties have been able to establish a division within the prosecutor’s office that would essentially do much of the same work innocence organizations have done but with little of the institutional resistance. Better to find your own errors and correct them, than to have someone else find them for you. The beauty of CIUs is that there is no one opposing the process. When a CIU comes to the conclusion that a wrongful conviction has occurred, they are able to reverse the conviction by going to the original trial court and asking the judge to vacate and dismiss all charges and immediately release the person.
The problem is that many, if not most, counties do not have the resources to have their own CIU. The answer to this was in Dana Nessel's proposal and the eventual creation of a state-wide CIU that would handle cases from any county in the state. However, it is fundamentally different in that it does not come from within the prosecutor's office which convicted the person. So, it is conceivable that the original county could oppose in court the motion of the Attorney General’s office to exonerate the person. In the first case where the state CIU concluded a person was wrongfully convicted, the county did not oppose their motion. Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald had run on a platform that advocated the creation of an Oakland County CIU. Ms. McDonald attended the hearing, stating that the State CIU had kept her thoroughly apprised of the process and she concurred with the state’s findings and would not oppose the motion. It remains to be seen what will happen if a county opposes the State CIU conclusion.
Gilbert Poole’s Exoneration
During the original trial, the forensics expert stated that based on “bite-mark” evidence, there was a 2.1 billion to one chance that anyone other than Mr. Poole committed the crime. Ironically, the Cooley Innocence Project substantiated that DNA evidence from the crime screen showed without a doubt that someone other than Mr. Poole committed the murder. One reform in criminal forensics is that courtroom testimony not be exaggerated beyond what is statistically supported. Such misleading statements are very persuasive to juries. Beyond that, the “science” of bite-mark evidence has been thoroughly debunked. [Today legislation is being crafted that would give Michigan courtrooms guidance as to what forensic techniques have undergone the scrutiny of the scientific community and therefore what testimony should be admitted as evidence, avoiding tragedies like this.]
Thirty-two years ago, Gilbert Poole stated at his sentencing “So help me God, I will overturn this.” At his exoneration hearing, he said “The system did not work for me.” He goes on to say, “But then I was sent a band of angels who looked beyond the rules and regulations to look at who was standing before them."
Mr. Poole did not state who those angels were, but we have some pretty good guesses. One angel he certainly had in mind is Marla Mitchell, past director of the Cooley Innocence Clinic. Mitchell has worked with Mr. Gilbert for over 18 years. She said that "Mr. Poole has never given up trying to prove his innocence, with or without legal representation. This case has died a thousand deaths but he never gave up.” Mitchell then went on to say “Gilbert has had everything taken away from him. Now, we are his family.", underscoring the personal nature of innocence work after working with a person for years.
Another good guess as to whom Poole regarded as one of his angels is Attorney Lori Montgomery who received special recognition from Ms. Mitchell, stating that she is “an accomplished DNA attorney and so much more”. She worked on Mr. Gilbert's case while at Cooley Innocence Clinic and then at the State CIU.
Another “angel” is Robyn Frankel, director of the State CIU. She was the first director appointed by Dana Nessel and had to create the entire system from scratch, though she did benefit from the extensive experience of the Wayne County CIU under Valerie Newman. Underfunded to begin with, the State CIU had a difficult time with the pandemic. An exoneration of a Michigander who may not have stood a chance within the traditional Court of Appeals route is something Frankel has been working toward for a long time. She was honored and humbled to present Gilbert Poole’s case with a motion to vacate the conviction. She was particularly moved by Mr. Poole's circumstances and stated, "I have been told that Mr. Poole is grateful to us and that embarrasses me. . . that he should be thankful for us giving him back something which never should have been taken from him. Mr. Poole, on behalf of the State of Michigan, we are deeply sorry."
The last angel to be mentioned in this proceeding is Judge Rae Chabot who simply said, “The motion of the Attorney General is granted.” Then clapped her hands and congratulated Gilbert Poole.
Gilbert Poole will receive $500 from Proving Innocence as soon as we can get the money to him to help him in the extremely challenging process of becoming a healthy functioning member of society. Few understand the challenges someone who has been incarcerated for 3 decades faces. To learn more about PI's Walking Free Fund, click here and consider giving to this important work.