Meet these four crusaders helping those who have been wrongfully convicted of a crime.

Maybe it’s because the Torah commands us to pursue justice. Or maybe it’s because Jews have historically been the victims of injustice. For whatever reason, Jews have long been active in the fight to help individuals who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit and incarcerated, sometimes for decades.

This article will introduce you to four such crusaders in southeast Michigan, including a chronicler of cases, an assistant district attorney who searches for cases, an academician who teaches and writes scholarly papers on the topic, and a trauma specialist who helps the wrongfully convicted tell their stories.


In 1989, convicted felons began to be exonerated by DNA evidence. Sam Gross, a University of Michigan Law School professor, took note. He started keeping track of cases where a prisoner convicted of a crime was later exonerated and freed. His first report on the topic, published in 2005, listed 340 such cases.

Sam Gross
Sam Gross

Gross’ files grew into the National Registry of Exonerations, launched in 2012, which records all known exonerations in the United States since 1989.

The organization does not represent clients or work with courts but identifies exonerations across the country, compiling data about people who were convicted of crimes in the United States and then found to be innocent. The registry does not include cases that were dismissed in court, cases where individuals were acquitted upon retrial or pardons.

The registry how has close to 3,300 entries.

“These are serious and very troubling mistakes,” said Gross of Ann Arbor. He says he created the archive to help people learn why false convictions occurred and, ideally, to help prevent future miscarriages of justice.

The archive followed the 1992 establishment of the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, which aims to free the innocent, prevent wrongful convictions, and create fair, compassionate and equitable systems of justice.

Dozens of similar clinics have started at law schools around the country since then, resulting in hundreds of exonerations every year. The Michigan Innocence Clinic, started at the University of Michigan Law School in 1990, was the first to specialize in cases where there is no DNA evidence. Another clinic, at Western Michigan University’s Cooley Law School, considers mostly DNA cases.

Until around 1990, most judges and prosecutors believed few suspects would confess to crimes they didn’t commit, Gross said. Now there is evidence, from hundreds of cases, that people who have few resources and who are scared after being arrested will confess if enough pressure is put on them, even if they are innocent.

As an example, he cited Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, where 45 defendants were exonerated months or years after their convictions on drug charges when lab tests showed nothing illegal in the materials seized from them. Most probably couldn’t make bail after they were arrested and agreed to a “take it or leave it” offer promising lighter sentences if they confessed, Gross said.

Finding cases of wrongful conviction isn’t always easy, he said. Our legal system is fractured, with different rules and procedures in every state. Most cases are tried at the county level, and few states keep centralized records.

Most of the documented exonerations are in homicide cases, which attract more interest because the consequences are so severe: often lengthy prison terms, including life, or the death penalty. Cases involving sexual assault, child abuse and drugs are also common.

Thanks to DNA evidence, the number of wrongful convictions for rape has declined significantly. If cases even go to trial, DNA evidence usually overrides eyewitness accounts, Gross said.

In a country with millions of criminal convictions every year and more than 2 million people in prison, a wrongful conviction rate of even 1 percent amounts to tens of thousands of errors, he said.

The registry also highlights disparities in sentencing. African Americans, for example, make up 13.6% of the U.S. population but accounted for 53% of the 3,200 wrongful convictions in the registry’s latest report. That disparity holds across all crime categories except white-collar crime, Gross said.


Defense attorneys don’t often take jobs in the country prosecutor’s office, but for Valerie Newman, an offer from Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy was one she couldn’t refuse. In 2017, she spearheaded the development of the Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit, designed to get innocent people released from prison. The office opened in 2018, and its work has resulted in dozens of exonerations.

Valerie Newman
Valerie Newman

Of about 2,500 prosecutors’ offices in the United States, only about 100 have similar units, Newman said.

When Newman walked into her new office for the first time, she had a stack of letters already waiting for her from prisoners claiming to be innocent. More letters arrive daily.

She reads every letter, but they don’t get equal attention. She dismisses any “affirmative” defenses, where convicts claim self-defense, or lack of intent, or (in cases of sexual assault) consent; cases where convicts claim their sentence was unduly harsh; and cases of people convicted in a county other than Wayne. To everyone else, she sends an application requesting details and giving an overview of her unit, so the applicant will understand what to expect.

Newman works closely with defense attorneys representing convicts, which is unusual for a member of the prosecutor’s office. She examines all the evidence in the case, starting with the original police report. She sometimes interviews co-defendants. “The whole point of the unit is that there are no secrets. Everything is transparent,” she said.

Applications that have merit go into a queue, and Newman and her staff — one full-time and three part-time attorneys, two detectives and an administrative assistant — start collecting information about the cases. When she feels she has enough information to warrant an exoneration, she presents the case to Worthy, who can petition a court to set aside the conviction. The state’s Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act says the state will pay those who qualify $50,000 for every year they spent wrongfully imprisoned.

Requests to overturn murder convictions are the most common, but Newman also handles cases of convictions for armed robbery and criminal sexual conduct. She’ll consider cases where the convict has already been released from prison, so that he or she can avoid the ongoing stigma of being labeled a felon.

She says her first case was one of her most memorable. Richard Phillips was 71 when he was freed after having served 45 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. In early 2018, the Michigan Innocence Clinic won him a new trial. Newman’s unit uncovered some evidence involving false trial testimony that exculpated Phillips. No one else had that information, not even the Innocence Clinic.

Another unforgettable case did not end happily. A 60-year-old man was deported to Italy — where he’d been born but had no connections — after a wrongful conviction in a drug case. His son uncovered DNA information via a genetic testing service that identified the man’s brother, long dead, as the perpetrator. Worthy agreed to an exoneration, but the man died of COVID in Italy before his family could bring him home.

Newman, who lives in Huntington Woods, meets monthly with a group of exonerees to provide support and help them with problems they might be having reintegrating into society. Mental health and substance abuse problems are common, but most exonerees avoid further legal trouble.

Newman’s office has helped connect the exonerees with other community organizations that can help them. Wayne State University, for example, provides free tuition to exonerees.

Among similar units nationwide, Newman says her office has a reputation as one of the most productive. In the five years since she started, the unit’s work has led to 34 exonerations.

Newman credits her Jewish upbringing — her family were longtime members of Congregation Beth Shalom — with giving her an early sense of justice. Learning about the myriad historical injustices against the Jews has resonated with her, she said, and she keeps a framed poster of a quote from Deuteronomy on her office wall: “Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue.”


Marvin Zalman, Ph.D., didn’t plan to go into criminal law, but when he and his wife, Greta, newly minted attorneys, joined the Peace Corps in the mid-1960s, he was assigned to teach criminal law at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria.

Marvin Zalman
Marvin Zalman

Back in the United States in 1969, he saw that criminal justice was becoming an academic field of study, and he was intrigued. He earned a master’s and then a doctorate in criminal justice at the State University of New York in Albany, the first such program in the country. From 1971 to 1980, he taught in Michigan State’s new School of Criminal Justice and then moved to Wayne State as chair of its new Criminology and Criminal Justice Department.

Throughout his career, he has tried to understand the relationship between criminal justice and political control. And he became intrigued by cases of wrongful conviction. There was a teen in Connecticut who came home and found his mother slashed to death. Although there was not a drop of blood on him, the police questioned him unremittingly until he falsely confessed. The conviction was eventually overturned.

Zalman, who lives in Huntington Woods, began teaching courses in wrongful conviction soon after. He has taught on the subject just about every year since, on both undergraduate and graduate levels. He has written dozens of articles for scholarly journals and edited an anthology looking at policies connected to wrongful convictions.

Some of Zalman’s students plan to work in law enforcement or go to law school. Others are considering careers in counseling or social work within the criminal justice system.

With the number of prisoners in the United States quintupled since 1972, the number of wrongful convictions is also burgeoning. The horror of a totally innocent person being convicted is obvious to everyone, Zalman said.

“The emotional power of wrongful convictions is so strong that it can be a lever to look into the overall criminal justice system,” he said. As a result, some weaknesses of the system are becoming exposed.

A report from Yeshiva University’s Innocence Project, showed that reasons for wrongful convictions fall into five general categories: mistaken identification, false confessions, falsified evidence, mistaken evidence and prosecutorial misconduct.

Wrongful conviction cases are often covered by news media and have been frequent topics of books and movies. As a teacher, Zalman wants to move from focusing on particular cases to understanding wrongful conviction as a systemic problem.

Just as airlines’ extensive safety checks have reduced the number of air crashes and hospitals’ morbidity and mortality reviews have reduced medical errors, so reviews of wrongful convictions may be able to improve the criminal justice system, he said.

Changes in criminal procedure can reduce the number of wrongful convictions, he said, including modifications in the way suspect identifications are handled. Many police departments now have lineups supervised by officers who were not involved in the arrest, to avoid even unconsciously biasing the witness. Lineups are recorded, and witnesses are given a limited time to make an identification. Hardball psychological pressure during interviews is starting to be discouraged, he said. A few enlightened police departments forbid lying to suspects (which is not prohibited by law). Prosecutors are also starting to realize that some forensic evidence, including fingerprints and hair analysis, is less reliable than DNA, and that “experts” interpreting such evidence can easily make mistakes.

His main lesson for his students, he says, is “it’s complicated — but there are solutions.”


Zieva Konvisser, Ph.D., has made a specialty of working with survivors of terrorism in Israel. Her particular perspective is the possibility of positive change after trauma.

Zieva Konvisser
Zieva Konvisser

In late 2006, Kovnisser, who lives in Orchard Lake, spoke about her research on trauma at Congregation Beth Shalom. Wayne State University criminal justice professor Marvin Zalman was in the audience and realized that much of what she had learned could be used to help exonerees.

“He quickly made the connection to survivors of wrongful conviction and told me that, historically, most wrongful conviction studies had focused not on the innocent persons themselves but on the causes of miscarriages of justice that expose systemic flaws in the criminal justice system,” she said.

Zalman invited her, as a trauma researcher, into his world and challenged her to explore the human impact of wrongful conviction on the wrongfully convicted person’s life and the lives of their loved ones.

Konvisser is not a therapist. She tries to help exonerees connect with therapists, but finding those who are qualified and available is an ongoing challenge. “We must address immediate, comprehensive psychosocial services for the newly released for a productive re-engagement with life, as well as long-term services necessary to address the detrimental impacts of imprisonment and the unique obstacles faced upon reentry to life outside of prison,” she said.

She sees herself as a story-listener, an advocate and a supporter of wrongfully convicted, freed and exonerated individuals. “I give them the opportunity to have a voice,” she said. “My real passion became listening to the voices of wrongfully convicted, freed and exonerated individuals, in particular the innocent women, to learn from them about their experiences, the strategies that have helped them cope with their situations, and their ongoing needs to rebuild their shattered lives post-exoneration and move forward. It’s so important for them to tell their stories.”

Konvisser also invites exonerees to share their experiences to build public awareness.

She has attended national conferences of the Innocence Network and is on the board of the local chapter of Proving Innocence, an organization dedicated to freeing individuals wrongfully convicted and imprisoned and assisting their reintegration into society. She works primarily with Michigan exonerees but has helped some women exonerees outstate as well.

Konvisser says the public needs to know that winning an exoneration involves more than getting out of prison. The needs of exonerees are ever-changing, but the trauma is lifelong.

“When they first come out of prison, there’s an exuberance, a rush to action — and then there’s a crash,” she said.

It’s usually hard for exonerees to find jobs. Some are senior adults when they come out of prison and face problems with housing and health care. Many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and the stigma that accompanies it. The material, relational, physical and emotional challenges affect families as well as the exonerees themselves.

In 2009, Michigan passed a law to provide compensation for people wrongfully convicted and imprisoned, but receiving compensation requires a separate court process, which can be re-traumatizing, Konvisser said.

In some ways, the exonerees’ experience is similar to that of Holocaust survivors, said Konvisser, who is an oral historian at the Zekelman Holocaust Center in Farmington Hills. “We need to give them voice and hear their stories,” she said.

She has developed long-term relationships with many of those she works with. “My biggest honor is to be called ‘Mom,’” she said.

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