MSU Law Alums Support Proper Police Procedure with Michigan Supreme Court Case Win

At a time when the world is calling for change and due process, a groundbreaking Michigan Supreme Court criminal case successfully spearheaded by two MSU College of Law alums and their partner at Warner Norcross + Judd (WNJ) could have a major impact on the future of police procedure in the state of Michigan.

The defendant in the case, Travis Travon Sammons, had received a conviction and a life sentence for his alleged role in a drive-by shooting that left another man dead. At the center of his conviction was controversial eyewitness identification given by a witness to the crime under questionable circumstances.

Kelsey Dame, ’17, an associate at Warner, was enlisted by the lead partner on the case, Gaëtan Gerville-Réache, who discovered the case in the docket, knew it was right for an appeal, and took it on. Lucy McManaman, ’20, a rising MSU Law 3L at the time of her involvement, was a summer associate at WNJ and the case was one of her first major assignments.

Procedural Predicament

During the initial investigation, an eyewitness was questioned by a detective who later conducted a “showup,” which, unlike the more common identification procedure of a lineup, singles out a potential suspect and, according to Dame, is to be used under very specific circumstances due to its suggestive nature.

The eyewitness was led down the hallway of Mr. Sammons’s and his co-defendant’s interrogation rooms and asked whether he recognized anyone. According to the detective, the eyewitness identified Mr. Sammons, and that is what the detective testified at the original trial.

“At the preliminary exam, the eyewitness denied on multiple occasions that he ever made an identification, but the lower court determined that the police officer’s testimony that an identification was made was sufficient to allow the conviction to stand,” Dame explained.

A Necessary Statement

This was not Mr. Sammons’s first attempt to appeal his conviction. He had previously been denied at the district and appellate levels; however, the WNJ team was hopeful about the case’s chances with the Michigan Supreme Court.

“We were dealing with United States Supreme Court precedent and just trying to explain how the lower courts got it wrong, which is always a sensitive thing to do,” Dame said. “I think what was so unique about this case was there was overwhelming information that suggested that Mr. Sammons was not involved in the case and the eyewitness testimony that was presented at the trial level was unreliable. We knew the minute we picked up the case that there was a big injustice here.”

From details about the suspect’s vehicle to his physical appearance, the eyewitness’s original descriptions were inconsistent with that of Mr. Sammons, but the alleged identification he gave to the detective during the “showup” was enough to convict.

With the WNJ team’s argument, the evidence demonstrating the suggestiveness of the “showup” procedure, and other inaccuracies that informed the investigation and its result, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in Mr. Sammons’s favor, granting him the opportunity to pursue a new trial.

“Often times, I think in some of these cases, they don’t want to make too big of a statement,” Dame said. “I think that a statement that this police procedure was highly suggestive was necessary to be made so that going forward in Michigan there is precedent requiring police officers to take some time to consider whether it actually is necessary to perform a ‘showup’ identification.”

Part of Progress

For McManaman, now a new MSU Law graduate who will soon join WNJ full time, the case demonstrated the range of an attorney’s ability to advance positive change and the chance that the support of effective, passionate counsel offers to those who need it.

“It was amazing to see how much good a lawyer can do in pro bono work, using the resources of a firm like Warner and showing how sacrificing your personal time can make a difference in someone’s life,” McManaman said. “Going into law now, I’ll always be looking for opportunities to help the way I did in that first summer.”

“I’m constantly going to be chasing the opportunity to do that again,” she added. “The nice thing about appellate work is you’re correcting the injustice for down the line as well, so it’s not a singular isolated incident. Now, hopefully, nothing like that will happen again.”

Dame’s work on the case was fulfilling in more ways than one. She sees that advocating for – believing in – Mr. Sammons and his case not only changed his life but will probably impact future cases that, like his, involve improper police procedure.

“This was certainly a cool case to work on, and I think the Court ended up with the right result,” she said.