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Northwestern and Michigan Are Partners in the Pursuit of Justice for the Wrongfully Convicted

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August 21, 2014

This article originally appeared in the The Huffington Post on August 20, 2014.

By Steve Drizin

On November 8, 2014, the Michigan Wolverines will travel to Evanston, Illinois to play the Northwestern Wildcats in football. Although Michigan's football program used to regularly trounce Northwestern, the games have gotten much closer over the years. Whether or not the teams are evenly matched on the gridiron, the game is sure to be a sellout. Many Michigan grads settle in the Chicago area and you can be sure that Ryan Field's parking lots will be filled with tons of tailgaters sitting outside their mini-vans and SUVs with their "Go Blue" bumper stickers.

Although Michigan and Northwestern may battle one another in Big Ten sports, although our universities may fight each other for the best and the brightest Big Ten students, and although we constantly jockey for position in the national rankings when it comes to our undergraduate and graduate schools, we have become powerful partners in the pursuit of justice. The most recent evidence of this is the joint effort of Michigan's Law School's Innocence Clinic and Northwestern Law School's Center on Wrongful Convictions to exonerate Jamie Lee Peterson, a Kalkaska, Michigan native, who has spent the past 17 years in prison for a murder and rape the physical evidence strongly suggests he did not commit. Earlier this week, the joint effort of our two innocence clinics led a Kalkaska County judge to grant Mr. Peterson a new trial.

In October 1996, residents of Kalkaska, Michigan, a small, close-knit community in Northwest Michigan, awoke to learn that 69-year-old Geraldine Montgomery had been murdered in her own home. DNA testing of a vaginal swab and a stain on Ms. Montgomery's shirt soon revealed the presence of semen, suggesting that Ms. Montgomery had been sexually assaulted. Fears that a sexual predator was on the loose permeated the community and these fears only escalated with each passing month as the crime remained unsolved.

Four months after Ms. Montgomery's death, police announced the arrest of Jamie Lee Peterson, a cognitively disabled man, who had confessed to committing the crime after hours of police interrogation. DNA testing, however, excluded Mr. Peterson as the source of the semen on the vaginal swab. However, given the limitations of the DNA testing, the State's DNA expert was unable to develop a DNA profile from the semen portion of the shirt stain.

After the testing, the police re-interrogated Mr. Peterson, pressuring him to name an accomplice. Mr. Peterson confessed again, recanted, and then confessed again and again and again. During these confessions, he named several accomplices, but each of these men was cleared by DNA testing. Nonetheless, prosecutors proceeded against Peterson, convinced that Peterson had committed the crime but that he was merely unwilling to name his accomplice. They obtained Peterson's conviction by pointing to Peterson's confession and arguing to the jury that Peterson must have left his DNA in the untestable sperm stain on the victim's shirt and that his unknown accomplice was responsible for the male DNA in the vaginal swab.

After Peterson's conviction had been affirmed, Peterson's attorneys, citing changes in DNA technology, repeatedly moved for DNA testing of the shirt stain and to have the profile of the semen stain compared to profiles of known criminal offenders in a new national DNA database. These efforts were rebuffed by the courts and by the prosecutor.

In 2013, Peterson's attorneys sought the assistance of David Moran, the Director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic to make another run at getting DNA testing for Mr. Peterson. At the time, the Michigan Innocence Clinic did not handle DNA cases. Moran contacted me and my colleague Josh Tepfer at the Center on Wrongful Convictions because of our experience in DNA cases and our particular expertise on the subject of false confessions. A partnership was born.

In May 2013, attorneys and students from both projects traveled to Kalkaska to meet with Michigan State Police officers and the newly-elected Kalkaska County prosecutor, Mike Perreault. To our surprise (and to their credit), they agreed to a new round of DNA testing and to placing the results in the database. These new results not only excluded Peterson from both stains but established that the DNA on both the shirt and the swab matched the same person, Jason Ryan, who was one of the suspects interviewed by the police during the original investigation. Mr. Ryan was charged with Ms. Montgomery's murder late last year. He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

Despite this new DNA evidence, the Ryan arrest, and the lack of any credible evidence that Ryan and Peterson have ever met, prosecutors, citing the confession, refused to vacate Mr. Peterson's conviction and grant him a new trial. So Michigan and Northwestern joined forces and took our fight to the courts. We co-wrote the legal briefs and split the oral arguments. And we prevailed.

This week's victory was not the only time that the Center has partnered with Michigan's Innocence Clinic. We referred to Michigan the case of Deshawn and Marvin Reed, who became the first two men to be exonerated by the Clinic. Our two law schools have also partnered in the creation of the National Registry of Exonerations, the largest database of wrongful convictions in the United States.

Attorneys and staff at the Center on Wrongful Convictions have also collaborated on cases with other Big Ten innocence organizations, including those affiliated with the University of Illinois, Wisconsin , and Indiana. This spirit of collaboration permeates the entire Innocence Network, a loosely-affiliated group of over 60 innocence organizations around the world. Innocence Network members frequently work together and revel in each other's successes.

Come November, our house will be divided when it comes to the Wolverine-Wildcat game. My wife went to Michigan as an undergrad and we met at Northwestern Law School. My blood runs purple and hers still runs blue. But things may be different this year - my youngest son starts as a freshman at Northwestern in the Fall. Go Wildcats!

- Steve Drizin is a clinical professor of law at Northwestern University.

Topics: Opinion