Sep 30, 2013

Wrongfully Convicted Get Backing in Wisconsin Legislature

Rep. Garey Bies, (R-Sister Bay, Wisconsin), at right at a
bill-signing ceremony, shakes hands with Scott Walker. Bies is
coauthoring a bill to help the wrongfully convicted in Wisconsin
"There is no more cruel tyranny than that which is exercised under cover of the law, and with the colors of justice." [UNITED STATES v. JANNOTTI (nos. 81-1020), UNITED STATES v. SCHWARTZ (nos. 81-1021)]

I came across the above quote at the Innocence Consultants site, an enterprise dedicated "to advise and assist the wrongfully convicted and those who have been victims" of the 'criminal justice system.'

Not a popular pastime in American culture.

Attempting to compensate innocents prosecuted and convicted in Wisconsin is one issue (I cannot think of two issues) gathering bipartisan support.

Most Americans maintain an unthinking animus toward lawyers, politicians, and various party hacks.

Yet, when these same lawyers and hacks assume the power of the prosecutor and don the robes of the judge, critical thinking and healthy animus dissipate—displaying again the human inability in far too many to question 'authority' and challenge the players in the judicial system, just as corrupt and eminently more damaging than the other two branches of American representative government.

People appear to naturally adopt "passive compliance" as liberty and human decency are lost, to borrow from Norman Cohn and Noam Chomsky.

Dee Hall notes this morning in the Wisconsin State Journal a bipartisan memo (precursor to a legislative bill) gathering support to enhance the compensation and procedural capacity of the wrongfully convicted. [Now, if we can just get innocents not arrested and prosecuted in the first place, but that's a different story.]

"Rep. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Corrections, and Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, last week began seeking co-sponsors for a bill to greatly boost compensation to the wrongfully convicted. Similar bills have failed to advance in the previous two legislative sessions," writes Hall.

The Wrongly Convicted Re-entry Act is picking up numerous co-sponsors across partisan lines.

In the state senate the co-sponsors are Senators Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend), and Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay).

Bies' office said this morning that the legislative memo notes the deadline for sponsorship is October 9.

The memo reads in part:

Co-sponsorship of LRB-2091/2 – Wrongly Convicted Re-entry Act (relating to: resolution of claims against the state for wrongful imprisonment of innocent persons, exempting from taxation certain amounts an individual receives from the claims board or legislature, and making an appropriation).

Most wrongfully convicted individuals serve decades-long prison sentences and face great hardships upon release. Apart from the horrors of prison life, the wrongfully convicted have few resources to draw upon when set free, and their families have often incurred enormous attorneys’ fees related to their cases.  While in prison, they miss out on educational opportunities, job training, and career advancement opportunities.   
Bies' office sent the following biography of the case of Robert Lee Stinson: "An innocent man awarded just $25,000 for 23 years in prison Incarcerated for a Crime He Did Not Commit":

In 1985 Robert Lee Stinson was convicted of the murder of his 62-year-old neighbor. The victim, Ione Cychosz was found dead on Nov. 3rd, 1984. She had been beaten, stabbed and bitten. The police employed a forensic dentist who drew a sketch of the bite marks found on the body. He determined, based on the bite marks, that the suspect was missing an upper front tooth. The police interviewed several suspects missing teeth consistent with the sketch, and quickly focused their investigation on 21-year old Robert Lee Stinson, whose backyard connected to the lot where the victim’s body was found. While interviewing Mr. Stinson, they noticed that he was missing a tooth, although not the same tooth that the dentist had thought the perpetrator was missing.

After a 3-day jury trial Mr. Stinson was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole. The trial centered largely on the testimony of two bite-mark experts who claimed that Mr. Stinson’s teeth matched bite marks left on the body of the victim. In 2009, after serving 23 years in prison Mr. Stinson was exonerated using both DNA found on the victim’s sweater, and the testimony of forensic experts who re-evaluated the bite-mark evidence and found that Mr. Stinson’s bite did not match the marks on the victim. Eventually the DNA found on the victim not only excluded Mr. Stinson, but also implicated another man, who later confessed to the crime. After he was released Mr. Stinson said that it was “a long ride for me. I’m finally out, and I’m going to enjoy my life.”

The Quest for Compensation
Robert Lee Stinson’s story exemplifies how woefully insufficient Wisconsin’s current wrongful conviction compensation scheme is. After serving 23 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Mr. Stinson applied to the Claims Board for compensation under the current statute, Wis. Stat. §775.05. The current statute only allows an exonerated person to receive $5,000 per year of incarceration up to $25,000. Even though Mr. Stinson was incarcerated for 23 years, he was only able to claim $25,000—just over $1,000 for each year he was imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. Mr. Stinson was able to meet the high burden of proof required by the current statute, something that many innocent exonerees are not able to do (especially if, for example, they were coerced into confessing), and the Claims Board awarded him the maximum amount available under current law. Noting the inadequacy of the amount, the Claims Board recommended that the Legislature make a separate appropriation for Mr. Stinson in excess of the statutory cap for wrongful imprisonment.

A Better Way
Under the proposed bill individuals like Mr. Stinson would be entitled to up to $50,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment. They would also have immediate access to social services, health care and transitional assistance as soon as they leave prison, to help ensure a smooth transition back into the community.

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