Bill on wrongful conviction compensation signed into law

By: Maria Allard | C&G Newspapers | Published March 13, 2020

LANSING — Individuals wrongly sent to prison and later exonerated will now have more time to file claims with the Michigan Court of Claims to receive financial compensation from the state.

On March 3, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed into law legislation that state Sen. Paul Wojno, D-Warren, sponsored that is designed to improve the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act by giving exonerees more time to receive financial compensation. An exonerated person is someone shown to be not guilty of a crime for which he or she was formerly found guilty.

Currently, about eight to 10 individuals in the state who have been exonerated have filed claims with the Court of Claims, but they were turned away because they were told they waited too long to file. In 2018, the Michigan Court of Claims had ruled that claims brought under the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act were subject to a six-month notice of intention to file a claim requirement, which means exonerees who did not file by Sept. 29, 2017, were unable to receive compensation.

The new law overrides that, and exonerees will have 18 months to file claims and collect from the fund.

“This is more of a technical fix so the individuals can file to collect compensation,” Wojno said. “These people were wrongfully convicted. They should be eligible to collect.”

Wojno said $2.5 million will be distributed between the roughly 10 individuals who can now file. A different amount will be given to each person.  

The Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Fund currently has about $10 million in it, according to Wojno. The money for the fund comes from the state’s general fund as needed, Wojno added.

“The purpose of the fund is to provide compensation to innocent people that served time, that were wronged by the system,” Wojno said. “We’re very happy to fix the wrong these individuals were dealt with so they are treated fairly and are compensated. Under the law, we’re responsible to compensate.”

Former state Sen. Steve Bieda had introduced proposed legislation that would authorize payment by the state to the wrongfully accused who serve time in prison but are eventually found innocent in a court of law. Former Gov. Rick Snyder signed the bill into law in December 2016.

Bieda served eight years in the state Senate and didn’t run for Senate again because of term limits. Wojno succeeded him when elected to the Senate in November 2018. Wojno worked on the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act after Bieda was term-limited out.

“I’m happy to see it go through,” Bieda said. “This amendment will determine people will have their day in court.”

Bieda said the new legislation came about because of the current cases of those exonerated who still hadn’t received their compensation.

“The cases in the pipeline were the ones that got caught up in this. Some people were able to recover and others weren’t,” Bieda said. “There was a statute of limitations. The new law opened up the time period for them to get back in.”

Bieda first started working on the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act several years ago after reading a newspaper article about someone who had been wrongfully accused of a crime and was trying to get his life back together.

“His trial came up with the wrong conclusion,” Bieda said, adding that when a person is proven innocent, “DNA or other evidence comes out that was not there or it’s dealt with in a different way.” The cases are often reopened after an exoneration.

Bieda said people who are wrongfully convicted “have a family, careers, lose most of their friends, miss family events. They have everything taken from them.”

When someone is exonerated, it can be “pretty dramatic,” Bieda said. The Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act “gives them the opportunity to at least start their lives again. It’s an attempt to make amends for something that didn’t happen.”