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BlogsPublications | May 23, 2016
3 minute read

Swain will get a new trial in highly-publicized innocence case

Lorinda Swain will get a new trial after the Michigan Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeals erred in failing to give proper deference to the trial court’s findings that the defendant was entitled to a new trial.  In People v. Swain, No. 150994, the Michigan Supreme Court concluded that the defendant had properly filed her successive motion for relief from judgment based on her claim that there was “new evidence that was not discovered before the first such motion” as provided in MCR 6.502(G)(2).  In so doing, the Court held that People v Cress, 468 Mich 678 (2003) does not apply to the procedural threshold of MCR 6.502(G)(2).  The case was remanded to the Calhoun Circuit Court for a new trial.

This case arose from Ms. Swain’s 2001 conviction that she had sexually abused her son.  Ms. Swain was released from custody in 2012 when a trial court judge granted one of Ms. Swain’s successive motions for relief from judgment under MCR 6.502(G)(2).  That motion was based on newly discovered evidence—the testimony of two witnesses—that rebutted the prosecution’s theory that Ms. Swain had sent the victim’s brother outside to wait for the school bus while she sexually abused the victim.  Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, holding that under People v Cress, 468 Mich 678 (2003), for a new trial to be granted on the basis of “newly discovered evidence,” a defendant must show that, among other things, “the party could not, using reasonable diligence, have discovered and produced the evidence at trial.”  The Court of Appeals found that under Cress, a witness’s personal knowledge of events was not newly discovered evidence because evidence that the witness possessed firsthand knowledge to rebut the sexual abuse claims was plainly known to the defendant prior to her first motion.  Thus, the issue was whether Cress’s requirements for “newly discovered evidence” should apply to MCR 6.502(G)(2) so that a defendant’s successive motion for relief from judgment based on newly discovered evidence is barred if the evidence could have been discovered prior to the first motion.

The Michigan Supreme Court answered in the negative.  It held that Cress does not apply to the procedural threshold of MCR 6.502(G)(2), as the plain text of the court rule does not require that a defendant satisfy all elements of the Cress test.  MCR 6.502(G)(2) refers to “new evidence that was not discovered,” as opposed to evidence that could have been discovered.  The Court concluded that the evidence here was not in fact discovered until after Ms. Swain’s trial when her new counsel interviewed the two witnesses and learned the details of their prospective testimonies.  Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals was reversed and the case remanded to the Calhoun Circuit Court for a new trial.

In light of its holding above, the Michigan Supreme Court declined to address the other issues presented in the order granting leave to appeal.