KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — A nearly half million dollar federal grant has helped a Western Michigan University program with its mission to assist innocent people who have been convicted of crimes.
The WMU-Cooley Law School Wrongful Conviction Program received the grant from the U.S. Department of Justice last year. It has helped the program put a dent in a backlog of about 5,000 cases.
Program Director Dr. Ashlyn Kuersten says one of the major benefits of the grant is that it allows the program to pay for its own DNA testing.
“Total game changer,” Kuersten told 24 Hour News 8. “Before this grant, you had to convince the prosecutors to pony up and pay for DNA testing and now my grant will pay for the DNA testing. That makes a big difference.”
She said her group of students has gotten through about 200 cases, pulling some 30 of them aside for further investigation. Of those 30, Kuersten said two or three are “promising” for a potential exoneration.
It’s a popular program: 400 applications come in every semester for the 25 spots available. Each case mailed in comes with pressure.
“This is it,” Kuersten said. “We’re the end of the line (for the prisoner).”
Eventually, cases deemed viable go on to Cooley Law School students for litigation.
Most similar programs are graduate programs, but Kuersten says there are plenty of ways for undergrads to get involved.
Kaichea Wright, a senior criminal justice major, said the program aligns with her goal of helping those who need it. Her brother is a convict. While she doesn’t believe him to be innocent, she says watching him go through the system showed her some of its shortcomings. If there’s an innocent person in the backlog at WMU, she hopes to find them.
“I think that would make my life,” Wright told 24 Hour News 8. “Being able to help someone, that’s an ultimate goal to be able to change someone’s life.”
“I do this because I think that this student generation, this next generation coming along behind me, I bet they’re going to have a lot better ideas than my generation did,” Dr. Kuersten said.
Those interested in supporting the WMU-Cooley Law School Wrongful Conviction Program can visit its webpage for more information.