Man shares his story of being wrongfully convicted, highlights national criminal justice issues

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Editor’s note: For this week’s “Know Your Rights,” Insider decided to go to an event held yesterday at Platcha Auditorium because  touches on many current issues in the criminal justice system. There will not a “Know Your Rights” post next week, due to the holiday. 

Victor Caminata of Cadillac spent five years in prison for arson before becoming exonerated.

“I have no faith in the criminal justice system,”  Caminata said to Central Michigan University students at Platcha Auditorium.
“This (a wrongful conviction) could happen to you.”

Caminata was sentenced nine to 40 years in prison after  prosecutors alleged he set his girlfriend’s house on fire, despite trying to put out flames with a fire extinguisher.

Imran Syed, attorney for  the University of Michigan’s Michigan innocence clinic, said a law student was an intern for his case and told the clinic Caminata’s story.

Syed said the clinics has received 5,000 requests for help since its inception , but the clinic only takes cases “nobody could argue with.”

The University of Michigan’s innocence clinic, which was established in 2009, tries to establish new evidence for people who maybe wrongfully convicted of a crime. The clinic has been able to release 11 people, including  Caminata, since its inception.

One of the clinic’s current and well-known cases involves trying to overturn a Livingston county father’s conviction  of abusing his infant.

After the clinic provided new evidence showing the analysis of the fire’s cause to be severely flawed, the Michigan’s Attorney General Office dismissed charges against Caminata in January 2014.

“(I have never received an apology) No sorry, sorry your loss, sorry for your kids’ loss, nothing,” Caminata said.

Caminata is currently seeking a civil suit against Wexford County, sergeants Brian Rood and Trent Taylor, Deputy Chad Sprik and state police Sgt. Michael Jenkinson, a fire investigator. The lawsuit claims crucial evidence was withheld that could have made a difference in his case.

A National Issue 

Caminata is not the only person to have their conviction be overturned due to new evidence.

According to the Innocence Project in New York, 333 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA evidence after their conviction.  Five of those cases have been in Michigan.

According to the University of Michigan School’s National Registry of Exonerations, 1702 people, 55 being in Michigan, have been released after wrongful convictions since 1989. Not all of these exonerations have been due to DNA.

While Caminata served five years of his sentence, others have served much longer. The Innocence Project says a person wrongfully convicted will spend an average of 14 years behind bars.

A example that received national attention case is Steve Avery of Wisconsin, who spent 18 years in prison for a rape that DNA later linked to someone else. He was later convicted of  killing a 25-year-old photographer.

Currently, Michigan is one of the 20 states that does not provide compensation for people whose conviction is overturned. However, that could be changing.

A bill is being considered in Michigan legislature that would award people who were wrongfully convicted of a crime $60,000 for every year spent in jail.

Governor Rick Snyder over the summer called for sweeping criminal justice reforms.

He also called for all more opportunities for people leaving prison, not just people wrongfully convicted.

“It’s a tragedy when Michigan’s youth turn to crime, and it’s an even greater tragedy when they exit our criminal justice system as adults with no good future at all,” Snyder said in his special message.

However, Snyder specifically called for legislation that would help exonerees “get back on their feet.”

While pursuing a civil suit. Caminata said he didn’t receive much help after being released for prison and the job hunt has been tough.

“It’s been very difficult, five years is a big gap on your resume,” Caminata said. “There was a newspaper article that came out about me being exonerated. The article was good, it was in my favor, but the next day I got fired from my job for no reason.”

Possible Solutions

Wolfgang Mueller, who is Caminata’s civil case lawyer, said something that could prevent wrongful convictions is an increase in the level of understanding of science for prosecutors, attorneys, judges and juries.

“Otherwise you end up having an ‘expert’ who looks good, sounds good, but could be flat-out lying,” Mueller said. “No one knows enough to cross-examine the expert.”

Syed also pointed out some states such as North Carolina have set up commissions to investigate claims of  wrongful convictions.

Syed also pointed the need for more resources after the people get exonerated. He said some of the people once release no longer have living family or mental illness issues made worse by prison.

“It would be great if the state could put some programs in place to give people a fighting chance,” Syed said.

Arielle Hines is the editor of CMU Insider. You can contact her at hines1as@cmich.edu. 


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