Finally cleared, years after judge first ruled her guilt was dubious

Sexual assault charges were finally dropped against a Michigan woman last week, more than six years after the judge who presided over her 2002 trial declared a “significant probability” that she was innocent of the charges.

Lorinda Swain spent more than seven years in prison before Calhoun County Circuit Judge Conrad Sindt first ordered a new trial in 2009 and released her from custody. But the conviction remained standing in the intervening years, as the case turned into a battle over whether defendants with evidence of their innocence should be entitled to keep turning to the courts for relief.

The prosecutor contended in legal papers filed with the Michigan Supreme Court last year that allowing Judge Sindt to overturn the verdict “erodes a cornerstone of our system – the finality of verdicts.”

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Nine current and former Michigan state and federal prosecutors urged the Supreme Court in a friend of the court brief on Swain’ behalf,  “If it is not contrary to the law for an actually innocent person to be locked up for a crime she never committed, what value is the law?”

Last week, the Michigan Supreme Court answered that question in a brief order, ruling that the appellate court erred in reinstating Swain’s sexual assault convictions and failing “to give proper deference” to Judge Sindt’s rulings that Swain was wrongly convicted. Following that ruling, the Calhoun County prosecuting attorney’s office announced it would not seek to retry Swain, ending the case.

Swain was sentenced to a prison term of 25 to 50 years after she was convicted in 2002 of repeatedly sexually assaulting her adopted son, Ronald, between the time that he was five and eight years old. When he was 14 years old, Ronald was accused of molesting his niece and first told authorities that he had been abused years earlier. Swain was convicted largely on the testimony of her son, along with the word of a jailhouse informant who contended Swain had confessed to her while in custody.

Ronald Swain recanted soon after trial, insisting to police that he had made a false accusation against Lorinda Swain. But his recantations, which he would repeat to prosecutors, were not taken seriously and the courts rejected her appeal nevertheless. In 2009 the Michigan Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School took on Lorinda Swain’s case, filing new motions contending additional witnesses existed but had not been called whose testimony cast doubt on the verdict.

The issue became whether it was proper for Judge Sindt to overturn the verdict once he heard that evidence and was left convinced that “justice has not been done.”

The Michigan Supreme Court’s ruling is one more example of how the courts struggle to interpret the rights of convicted defendants to seek relief in the face of laws imposing strict time limits. Swain’s case stands in contrast to the fate of Dimitri Henley, whose sexual assault conviction was reinstated by a 4-3 vote of the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2010 after the trial judge in that case concluded Henley was entitled to a new trial in the interests of justice.

Injustice Watch also reported this month on the case of Cody Ellerman, who remains in federal custody even though the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that he had been given an improperly harsh sentence that should already be complete. Ellerman had been tardy in raising the issue, the court ruled, erasing his opportunity for relief.

In Swain’s case, Ronald Swain originally testified that his mother would send her other son, Cody, to wait alone for the bus on school days, and then would engage in oral sex wit him. Cody, according to testimony, would come back and pound on the front door when the bus arrived. Cody Swain also testified that he was regularly sent to wait for the bus alone, and would have to run back to bang on the door when the bus arrived.

The Michigan Innocence Project hinged its effort for a new trial on Cody Swain’s recantation, as well as testimony from both the school bus driver and a neighbor that the boys waited for the bus together, contrary to Ronald’s testimony. Judge Sindt, after a hearing, ruled in 2009 that the new evidence substantially undermined the prosecution case.

In 2011, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed that order, ruling that the new witnesses could have been called at the first trial, and did not amount to newly-discovered evidence.

Judge Sindt then held another hearing based on the potential testimony of Swain’s former boyfriend, Dennis Book. Book testified that he lived in the trailer with the Swains, and knew the allegation was false. He also testified that the investigating detective had interviewed him before trial, and Book had told the detective that no abuse occurred.

The original defense attorney testified that he had never been informed of Book’s statements to detectives. He testified that had he known, he would have at least interviewed Book.

The detective had since died, and prosecutors contended there was no evidence that the interview with Book ever occurred.

Judge Sindt ruled that he believed the interview had occurred, and said the “validity and wisdom of the guilty verdicts which this court has previously found to be unsupportable are called into even greater question.”

Prosecutors again appealed, and the Michigan Court of Appeals last year reinstated the verdict, ruling that Sindt had abused his discretion by granting a new trial, based on rules that limit the opportunity for post-conviction appeals. One of the three judges wrote that she considered it a case in which it was more likely than not that no reasonable juror would have convicted Swain based on the evidence as it had later developed.

That led to another round of appeals to the Michigan Supreme Court. The prosecuting attorneys association filed a brief, urging that the court uphold the appellate court decision that Sindt had exceeded his authority. In their own friend of the court brief, the nine current and former prosecutors wrote, “Lawyers, and prosecutors in particular, have an affirmative obligation to act in furtherance of justice. No evidence should be sufficient to decide the guilt of a person who is actually innocent.”