The question of compensation

Nov 18, 2009 at 12:00 am

After spending years in Bosnia working with international aid groups using DNA to identify victims in mass graves, Lola Vollen retuned to the United States in 2000. Soon after coming back, the physician helped organize a conference to discuss the use of DNA technology in human rights issues, and she met an exoneree who had been out of prison for less than a year, having served part of a sentence for a crime he didn't commit.

She heard him asking that his honorarium for speaking at the event be expedited. He was sleeping on his grandmother's couch and she was short money for utility bills. He wanted to help her.

"I realized in exonerees a new community had been born," she says. "It was a community that had no assistance."

She formed the Life After Exoneration Project (LAEP) in 2002 and, until last year when funding fell short, had social workers who met with exonerees around the country. Vollen and Dave Eggers, editor of McSweeney's magazine, edited a book of oral histories collected from exonerees by University of California-Berkley graduate journalism students titled Surviving Justice: America's Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated.

Between LAEP and the book project, Vollen says she's learned about the special needs of the exoneree population. "The very first thing they need is a place of their own where they're not depending on someone else, a place to live," she says. "They need physical security and enough financial security so they're not going to wonder where their next meal is coming from."

Secondly, Vollen says, they want society to recognize that they suffered an injustice. "That can come in an apology from a district attorney or prosecutor. It can come from a state compensation law. It can come from a civil judgment," she says.

But civil judgments are rare and take years to wind through the courts with little certainty of success. Apologies aren't accompanied with meals, rent and health insurance. That's why she's advocated for compensation for people who serve prison time for crimes they didn't commit and supports a bill currently before Congress that would provide grants to organizations that help exonerees. Reps. John Conyers and Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, both Detroit Democrats, are co-sponsors of the measure.

Twenty-seven states and Washington, D.C., have provisions to provide compensation money, medical care or other services to people who are cleared of crimes by a court or a pardon. The federal government has had a compensation plan since 2004.

Michigan has no such provision.

Former state Rep. Steven Bieda (D-Warren) introduced a compensation bill in two sessions before he was term-limited out of the Michigan House last year. He says not getting a compensation bill enacted as law is his biggest regret about his tenure in Lansing.

"This is the right thing to do. It's kind of a noble cause," Bieda says. "It should be society's way of dealing with a very small number of people who have been hurt extraordinarily by a wrong in our system."

Bieda's proposal would have provided $50,000 for each year a person was wrongly incarcerated. In 2008 it passed the House but stalled in Senate Judiciary Committee, which is chaired by Wayne Kuipers (R-Holland). Kuipers did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment.

Bieda says legislators told him they feared being targeted as "soft on crime" in future elections if they supported compensation for exonerees. "I don't understand how they could say [that] when you're dealing with someone who was the victim of a crime," Bieda says. "This person who was wrongly convicted is every bit as much a victim of that underlying crime as the person who was. In a sense, there are two victims, multiple victims of it. Not only did you have somebody who got away with the crime but somebody else paid the penalty for what that was."

Opposition also surfaced based on budgetary concerns. "There were some who looked at it in terms of, 'Hey, we're cutting programs. This is not a good time to do it.' I'm kind of sympathetic to that," Bieda says. "But when you do something wrong do you say, 'Oh, it's not a good time for us to make it right'?"

His successor, state Rep. Jon Switalski (D-Warren) has re-introduced the measure this session, and state Sen. Martha Scott (D-Detroit) sponsored a version in the Senate. "How do we not have it? It's just wrong that we don't," Switalski says. "We'll provide somewhat of a safety net or a re-entry program for those who did commit the crimes but those who didn't are just released back into society and expected to survive on their own. It's a completely hypocritical double standard."

Switalski plans work groups in January, hoping for committee hearings. His proposal calls for paying exonerees $40,000 for each year they were incarcerated as well as providing health care coverage and some attorneys' fees.

Ken Wyniemko, who was wrongfully incarcerated for rape for nearly a decade before DNA cleared him, advocates for the innocence movement full-time. He calls exonerees soon after they are released, provides them with $500 to get started and tells them he'll help them any way he can.

Wyniemko plans to join the work groups, testify in hearings and do whatever he can to support their passage.

"Doesn't it make sense that someone who was wronged so badly by the actions of the state receive that compensation?" he says. "The state should pay out money because the state was wrong."

Walter Swift, who served 26 years for a rape he was exonerated of, says compensation bills, including exonerees in parole services and apologies would help them overcome the years of prison that stripped their dignity and self-worth.

"You have to show me that society sees me as a significant person, significant enough to provide alterative and options and opportunities," Swift says.

One of the biggest problems people leaving prison face is finding employment. Prisons have cut education and job-training programs, leaving them woefully behind in skills and knowledge. Being behind bars creates résumé gaps even for the innocent that aren't always easily or believably explained.

Wyniemko found brutal irony in recent revelations that five Detroit business leaders — Rock Financial and Quicken Loan founder Dan Gilbert, Compuware chairman and CEO Peter Karmanos Jr., Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel "Matty" Maroun, PVS Chemicals president Jim Nicholson and auto mogul Roger Penske — provided former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his wife with loans and gifts of nearly $300,000 before he plea-bargained his perjury charges.

"When I read that I was so fucking pissed," says Wyniemko, a gentle, soft-spoken man. "Kilpatrick's track record has been so bad. He's been so deceptive. He's done so much damage to the city. If they can step up to the plate to give him money, can't they find it in their hearts — not only them but other corporate leaders — to kick in to some type of a fund to help people who were actually innocent in prison or offer them a job. Is that so much to ask?"