The Michigan State Justice system has torn Donyelle Ferdinand Woods away from his family and freedom for nearly two decades for a crime that he did not commit. Without any relevant evidence of Woods’ connection to the crime, his continued incarceration exemplifies Michigan’s problem with wrongful convictions.
“I think that my father has been stripped from his freedom without even having a chance at living, let alone defending himself,” said Demari Covington-Woods, 20, Donyelle’s son.
Woods was prosecuted for the murder of Eric Harris on May 8, 2003 in Detroit, Michigan. Harris, a narcotics dealer, was shot while making a phone call from a payphone in Detroit. Woods’ alleged motive for the murder was over an unfounded rumour that the two had previously argued.
Chavez Johnson, an alleged eyewitness to the murder, helped create a composite sketch of the suspect for the shooting four days afterwards. However, before Woods’ trial, Johnson was killed in a separate incident. The only other eyewitness to the murder, Sandra Taylor, confirmed Woods as the suspect in the sketch.
Woods’ case was twice tried by the State of Michigan. The first jury hung while the second convicted. On top of a life sentence for first-degree murder, Woods’ received a two-year sentence for a firearm felony.
Years later, Taylor, who admitted to being under the influence of drugs at the time of the murder and trial, recanted her witness statement, leaving no evidence of Woods’ ties to the murder of Harris. According to the Woods family, Taylor was paid off by law enforcement to ensure his conviction, and grant her safety from the law.
“The fact that the justice system clearly sees that the evidence is there that my father was framed and they won't even give him a chance and want to take and continue to take his freedom from him, that's not fair,” Covington-Woods said.
Amid the already plagued punitive system of the United States, Michigan’s carceral system is one of the worst of the worst. In 2020, twenty people were exonerated of crimes they did not commit in Michigan, placing the state’s total wrongful convictions second in the nation only behind Illinois.
However, there is no promise that the 2020 list is exhaustive considering the amount of work required for each exoneration. Woods is lucky enough to be supported by a devoted team including Covington-Woods and Silent Cry Inc., an organization for the rights of people impacted by incarceration and run by Shawanna Vaughn, but, without powerful legal or legislative aid, exoneration remains elusive.
Vaughn and Silent Cry Inc. are working to aid incarcerated individuals in Michigan, California, and New York in a twofold manner. Silent Cry Inc. seeks to recognize the harm caused by incarceration through holistic healing and changes to judicial legislation. Silent Cry Inc. “is an organization that tries to heal one person then one act at a time,” Vaughn said.
Wrongful convictions more than mar the state’s judicial system; they are a mark of a corrupt punitive system that aims to burn justice to fuel mass incarceration. Prison labor is a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States going back to the 19th century, so it remains in the better interest of fiscally minded individuals to keep wrongfully convicted people incarcerated.
Michigan also does not have the funds for lengthy, labor heavy exoneration processes. The Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act, a government plan to pay exonerees $50,000 for every year spent behind bars, was established with a fund that has been rapidly dried out by increasing exonerations, and an estimated $7 million is needed for the state to repay all of the wrongfully convicted individuals for their years spent incarcerated.
Despite the lack of evidence supporting Woods’ conviction, he has remained in prison without parole. Woods has been unable to be granted parole since the board would require an admission of guilt from him on his convictions. In 2018, the University of Michigan’s Innocence Clinic sought a pardon for Woods, since executive clemency can override a jury’s decision, especially when juries are skeptical of introducing evidence produced long after a conviction.
“If you can deny a man parole, a chance at freedom, because he didn't admit to what he didn't commit, then whatever your beliefs are in the justice system, it's completely corrupted,” Covington-Woods said. “Not only are you affecting that individual but you affect that individual's family, kids, mom and dad.”
But new legislation may put an end to further wrongful convictions and over-sentencing. Michigan Representative Jewell Jones is backing House Bill NO. 4999, which would end the use of juvenile convictions for excessive adult sentencing. Stifling mass incarceration through new legislation would give Michigan a chance to right the wrongs of other currently incarcerated individuals.
“We are clear at this juncture in America that there is no correction in correctional systems—it is dehumanizing; it is industrial; it is modern day slavery,” Vaughn said.
Covington-Woods has lived the majority of his life without his father’s physical presence. However, throughout Woods’ incarceration he has maintained a paternal relationship with his son, supporting him with guidance on investing in himself and his future.
“Through our hard times, my father has been able to guide me in the process and nourish me mentally,” Covington-Woods said. “All in all I just want my dad to be free.”
For more about Shawanna Vaughn, Silent Cry, and how you can join the fight for Donyelle Woods' freedom, visit silentcry.org or follow on Instagram at @silent_cry_inc.
To read House Bill 4999, which ends the use of juvenile convictions for adult sentencing, click here. Show support for the bill by signing the Change.org petition here, or by contacting the Michigan House of Representatives at 517-373-0135 or the Michigan Senate at 517-373-2400. For additional contacts in the state legislature, click here.
Featured image: (C) Mattia Faloretti