May 18, 2016

The Michigan Supreme Court agreed with the reasoning of an amicus brief filed by the firm in a criminal case regarding a woman convicted in 2002 of the sexual abuse of her adopted son, who later recanted his story. 

Ms. Swain served more than seven years of a 25- to 50-year sentence in prison before her son, as an adult, recanted his story.  After a confirming polygraph and corroborating testimony,including from newly discovered witnesses who were known to the prosecution but not disclosed to the defense prior to her original trial, the original trial judge granted her motion for relief from judgment and set aside her four convictions. 

Since then, the Michigan Court of Appeals has twice reversed her efforts to obtain a new trial.  On May 18, 2016,  Michigan’s highest court reversed the earlier judgment of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case to the Calhoun Circuit Court for Ms. Swain’s requested relief—a new trial.

The firm filed the amicus brief on behalf of nine current and former Michigan prosecutors, including one who previously prosecuted the case.  Submitted at the request of the court, the brief examines the question of, under Michigan law, what standards must be met by a defendant alleging wrongful conviction to be granted a new trial.  The brief, which was referenced by Ms. Swain’s lawyer during the rebuttal portion of his argument, argues for a broad reading of Michigan’s statute and court rules to provide relief from convictions where there is substantial evidence that a person is actually innocent and discusses policy implications surrounding the interpretation of the law. 

The Michigan Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeals(1) misapplied the plain text of MCR 6.502(G)(2) in requiring defendants claiming actual innocence to establish diligence in pursuing and presenting new evidence to the trial court, and (2) “erred in failing to give proper deference to the specific findings of the trail court that the defendant was entitled to a new trial.  The defendant provided a ‘claim of new evidence that was not discovered before the first’ motion for relief from judgment, MCR 6.502(G)(2), and we conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in ordering a new trial on the facts of this case.”Going forward, the Michigan Supreme Court’s holding is expected to facilitate innocence claims within the State of Michigan, by easing the procedural bars to making such claims.

Sealing a complete victory for Ms. Swain, the Calhoun County Prosecutor has indicated that he will not seek to retry Ms. Swain.

The team that authored the brief was led by Associate Chad J. Ray, who was supervised and guided by Partners Sara Tonnies Horton and Paul D. Margolis.