Lunch for Justice

How an hour-long conversation will result in Michigan becoming a national leader in validated forensic evidence

Lauren Krisai, Julie Baumer and Amshula Jayaram discuss forensic science at an Issues and Ideas Forum earlier this year.

In January, the Mackinac Center hosted an Issues and Ideas Forum on the topic of forensic evidence, or the use of physical evidence obtained at a crime scene, such as trace chemicals and fingerprints. Poorly applied analysis, or forensic science, can mean that someone is wrongfully convicted of and sentenced for a crime. So, the panelists agreed, it’s critical to enact policies that ensure transparency and quality control in crime labs. It’s also important that courts do not admit evidence that is based on bad science.

The lunch event was very well attended by Mackinac Center friends and nontraditional allies, who learned that so far, 17 Michiganders have been exonerated after being wrongfully convicted on the basis of misapplied forensic science. Our speakers, Amshula Jayaram of the Innocence Project, Lauren Krisai of the Reason Foundation and Julie Baumer, a wrongfully imprisoned woman, also met with local criminal justice reform advocates and stakeholders after the event. They used that occasion to explain how policy change and public education can keep innocent people out of prison.

These discussions have since blossomed into real change, with Jayaram educating lawmakers with Jarrett Skorup, the Mackinac Center’s director of communications and marketing. The idea of creating a state-based forensic science commission, one of the most important ones put forth by the panel, is now in full motion. The commission could prevent wrongful convictions that result from the flawed use of forensics. It would do this by uniting some of Michigan’s best research scientists and forensic science practitioners with criminal justice stakeholders to review the evidence presented in our courtrooms and ensure that it is based on reliable, validated science.

The budget bills being discussed in both the House and Senate contain a placeholder provision that can soon be used to fund such a commission. When the commission is funded, it will be one of the best of its kind in the country and put Michigan in a position to show other states how to transform the use of forensic science. A diverse coalition, including the ACLU and the Michigan Innocence Project, supports the proposal, and is working with lawmakers and representatives of the criminal justice system.

The progress underway on this important reform just goes to show what can happen when interested people who want to do the right thing decide to get together for lunch.