Appellate Investigation Project


AIP: Making Investigations More Accessible for MAACS Appeals
Access to investigative services and expert witnesses can have profound effects on individuals seeking to appeal from their felony convictions. Yet, access to investigative services is a challenge faced by many indigent appellate defendants and their attorneys. Nearly 75% of all indigent appellate defendants in Michigan are assigned counsel through the Michigan Appellate Assigned Counsel System (MAACS). In order to hire investigators or experts, MAACS roster attorneys must first request funding approval from judges at the trial court level. These requests present their own challenges and are far from certain to be granted. MAACS roster attorneys are, thus, often faced with the unenviable task of conducting investigations on their own while facing mounting caseloads and limited resources.

The lack of access to investigators on appeal can have devastating results. The National Registry of Exonerations reports that of Michigan’s 55 exonerations of actually innocent people wrongfully convicted of crimes, 29 were achieved through more complete investigations. Twelve more were achieved through the use of expert witnesses. These exonerations account for over 200 years wrongly spent in prison. Aside from exonerations, there are also individuals whose convictions were obtained due to erroneous eyewitness identification, faulty forensic science, lack of investigation by trial counsel, false confessions, involuntary or unknowing pleas, and other unreliable evidence that calls into question the integrity of the convictions.

The Appellate Investigation Project (AIP) hopes to change the status quo. The AIP is federally-funded through the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant, and is an innovative collaboration between SADO and MAACS to provide MAACS roster attorneys with greater access to investigators, as well as training on spotting and litigating extra-record issues and cases in need of expert witnesses.

Brett DeGroff will serve as the Principal Attorney of the AIP. Brett has significant experience in conducting investigations in his own criminal appellate caseload, and as a prior journalist.

Brett has been an Assistant Defender at SADO since 2012. He is a graduate of Western Michigan University and the University of Michigan Law School. Prior to joining SADO, Brett clerked for Justice Mary Beth Kelly on the Michigan Supreme Court. Brett is committed to fighting for social justice both through his work at SADO as well as through activism in his community. Before law school, Brett worked as a journalist at MLive and the Ann Arbor News. 

As Principal Attorney, Brett will screen cases submitted by MAACS attorneys, and will provide MAACS attorneys with litigation assistance and help formulating investigation strategies. Although grant funding is not available for direct payment of expert witness fees, the team will provide assistance on identifying expert needs, obtaining local funding, and interacting with expert witnesses.

The AIP is working with SADO’s Criminal Defense Resource Center to design trainings for appellate counsel in 2018, as well as resources and materials on investigations in appellate cases.

This project is supported by Byrne JAG State FY 2018 # 2015-MU-BX-0964,2016-MU-BX-0703, awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), and administered by the Michigan State Police (MSP). Points of view or opinions contained within this document do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the DOJ or the MSP.

READ THE FULL MEDIA RELEASE FOLLOWING THE LAUNCH OF THE AIP (Jan 2016)

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How to Request AIP Services:
The AIP is currently accepting cases for consideration as laid out in the “Case Criteria” document located at: http://www.sado.org/content/pub/10575_AIP-Case-Criteria-.pdf.

MAACS roster attorneys who wish for their case to be considered by the AIP should complete the AIP request form, download a fillable PDF document version here: http://www.sado.org/content/temporary/10921_Fillable-AIP-For---12-19-2017.pdf


The AIP can be reached at 313-256-9833, or by emailing Brett DeGroff at bdegroff@sado.org.


Conflicts Policy:
The AIP thoroughly screens cases for potential conflicts. The AIP has developed a conflict policy for scenarios where a co-defendant is represented by a SADO attorney. Firewalls are in place for this scenario and MAACS attorneys should feel free to discuss this further with the AIP if a conflict is identified.


AIP in the News
"Katherine Marcuz on the Appellate Investigation Project"
Detroit Legal News, March 31, 2016 (PDF)

"Innovative Appellate Investigation Project Launched"
Detroit Legal News, January 27, 2016 (PDF)