(CNN)After spending more than 26 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, Larry Smith was released February 4 through the Conviction Integrity Unit at the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office in Michigan.
This Wayne County, Michigan, program is helping exonerate people for crimes they didn't commit. Now it's going statewide
The feeling, Smith said, is "amazing, a God-given blessing."
Smith is one of 27 wrongly convicted individuals who have been exonerated through the unit since it was established in 2018 by Wayne County Prosecutor Kym D. Worthy.
The unit, like others around the country, was created to investigate whether there is substantial evidence that convicted individuals were wrongly accused and convicted.
That many exonerations in that short time frame is "unheard of," said Maurice Possley, a senior researcher at the National Exonerations Registry, a database that tracks cases in the United States.
"It usually takes anywhere from months to years for conviction integrity units to conduct investigations," Possley said.
Last year, just 120 people were exonerated nationwide, according to the database.
Now, Wayne County's unit is serving as the model for a statewide conviction integrity unit to investigate cases in counties that don't have their own units, according to the Attorney General's office.
"We have a duty to ensure those convicted of state crimes by county prosecutors and our office are in fact guilty of those crimes," Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a news release in 2019 when the statewide unit was announced.
"Conviction Integrity Units are a critically important aspect of a prosecutor's office, as the existence of a productive unit demonstrates a commitment to justice. A good unit works to correct past injustices and educate stakeholders to prevent future injustices," Valerie Newman, director of the Conviction Integrity Unit in Wayne County, said.
"From day one, I've been trying to overturn my conviction. I think the justice system is broken," Smith said. "I was blessed, I was blessed that they created a CIU (Conviction Integrity Unit) in Wayne County."
Together, the 27 individuals exonerated by the Wayne County CIU spent 415 years wrongfully imprisoned, according to the National Exonerations Registry.
In Smith's case, CIU investigators determined that a jailhouse informant had lied when he told prosecutors during Smith's trial that Smith had confessed the murder to him.
"That conversation never happened," said Smith, who always maintained his innocence. It was later revealed the informant lied in order to obtain police favors in his own case.
On the morning of March 24, 1994, 18-year-old Smith was at work when he got a call from his mother to go to the police station in Detroit. That is where Smith found himself in the middle of a shooting murder case that occurred that morning, involving the death of Kenneth Hayes.
There was no conclusive forensic evidence against Smith. He wasn't at the crime scene, and no one testified that they saw the shooter's face during the trial. Still, Smith was sentenced to life in prison with no parole and was convicted of first-degree murder and a felony firearm offense over the murder of Hayes.
"I think the police was dead set on getting a conviction (out of me), who better than this Black kid who walks into a police station and doesn't have a clue?" Smith said.
Smith's case was one of the almost 1,600 requests for investigation that the unit has received since it opened in 2018, according to Valerie Newman, director of the Conviction Integrity Unit in Wayne County, "an average of about 500 cases per year," she said.
The unit, though, is "significantly underfunded" and could do even more if that were not the case, she said.
"Prosecutor Worthy has requested additional funding for the Unit but we have yet to receive any increase. Additional funding would allow us to process cases in a more timely manner," Newman told CNN.
Bernard Howard was wrongfully convicted and spent 26 years in prison before being released in December of 2020.
Howard was 18 in 1995 when he was charged with murder, felony, and armed robbery, despite no physical evidence ever linking him to the murder or the crime scene, according to a news release by the Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit.
The investigation by the unit also discovered that Howard was a victim of a forced confession by the police.
"Howard was convicted based upon the questionable account of a jailhouse-informant who claimed in testimony that he was recipient of the confessions by Howard's two co-defendants, which implicated Howard," Newman said. "The questionable confessions were pre-prepared and pre-typed confessions by detectives which were admitted into evidence at trial."
"The eighteen-year-old, barely literate Howard attempted a handwritten edit to the detective's typewritten version, which appeared to track his earlier alibi statement about where he was during the killings. However, he said that a detective told him that he just needed to 'sign the papers' and he would be allowed to go home, and so he did," Newman, the Wayne County CIU director, said.
Howard was 44 years old when he was finally exonerated.
"I feel blessed," Howard told CNN.
He returned home to his children and grandchildren and said it feels "wonderful" to be reunited with them. But it has been challenging to mend the relationship with his children after being absent from their lives for so long, he said.
"It's hard, they are at a certain age and they are grown. If I stay persistent as well, my life will be back on track," Howard said.
Kevin Harrington was exonerated in April after spending 17 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, thanks to a Wayne County CIU investigation.
Attorney Imran Syed of the Michigan Innocence Clinic spent 10 years fighting to exonerate Harrington.
Harrington was a college student when he was convicted in 2003 of first-degree murder over the death of a man in Inkster, Michigan, despite that no evidence linked him to the shooting.
"There was a lot of police misconduct," during Harrington's case and trial in 2003, Syed said. "This case was challenging because of how our criminal justice system treats convicted people. Once a person is convicted, the system sees that as a done deal, and it's very hard to get a court to give another look to the case," Syed said.
Harrington didn't receive a fair trial, the CIU found.
Harrington told CNN he's "overjoyed" to be exonerated.
"I was in jail for 17 years, six months, two days and 35 minutes," Harrington said.
Harrington told CNN he studied the law by reading law books during his time in prison, learning terminology, learning about new laws and policies related to criminal justice, reading his appeal and post-conviction papers, as well as the defenders trial manual.
"I was a 20-year-old college student, I didn't have knowledge about the law, that was a foreign world for me. But I wasn't ready to lay down and die for something I didn't do," Harrington explained.
Within 90 days after his exoneration, Harrington created a consulting firm, Justice Group Consulting Firm LLC, and is its CEO. The firm works to connect wrongly convicted individuals and inmates with lawyers and investigators, and to educate people on the law and their rights.
"I have a duty to try to help fix the justice system for people that don't have a voice or don't know the law or don't know what to do to get help," Harrington stated.
Michigan's statewide Conviction Integrity Unit hasn't exonerated anyone since it was created, although it is currently investigating multiple cases, according to Ryan Jarvi, the press secretary for the Attorney General's office.
"We have received over 1,200 requests for assistance," Jarvi said.
The pandemic has slowed the unit's work, Jarvi said, and it has taken time to get things up and running.
Only six other states have statewide Conviction Integrity Units: New York, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Virginia.
Before the Wayne County CIU took up his case, an attorney for Smith said courts paid no attention to motions and briefs filed on his behalf.
"There were moments that were discouraging for me, when we would file all these motions, pleadings, and briefs, and have the courts not even pay attention to them ... they didn't even want to look at it. Once CIU opened up and Larry applied," Smith's case received attention, said Mary Owens, Smith's attorney since 2007.
"It's an unbelievable feeling of vindication ... I just feel absolutely thrilled for Larry," Owens said.
Smith, who had Covid-19 while imprisoned, says his future plans are to serve as a consultant for incarcerated individuals and medically vulnerable prisoners.
"I'm angry for the people who are left behind who are going through the same experience I went through," people who were wrongly convicted, incarcerated and still languishing in jail.