EXONERATED PRISONERS - JOURNEY TO JUSTICE A CHALLENGING PATH
March 31, 2017
Michigan Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act Rights Wrongs
We expect the legal justice system to be fair. If someone was wrongly accused of committing a crime, many people believe that a judge or jury will find the person innocent. But the criminal justice system doesn’t always work that way.
In many cases, many innocent people are wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit. And while some of these mistakes are discovered during the appeals process, other times many innocent people are wrongfully incarcerated for years.
Fortunately, a process exists for righting such wrongs – exoneration. In recent years, a record number of wrongfully imprisoned people have been exonerated and released from prison. And in Michigan, exonerated prisoners can be compensated for their time in prison – provided they meet the state’s deadline established March 29, 2017 for applying for financial compensation.
What Is Exoneration?
Exoneration is a legal term used when a person who has been wrongfully convicted of a criminal charge is “declared to be factually innocent by a government official or agency with the authority to make that declaration,” according to The National Registry of Exonerations, a project overseen by the University of Michigan Law School, Michigan State University College of Law and several other institutions of higher learning.
Most wrongfully convicted prisoners are exonerated by judges and juries at new trials. Many of these new trials are requested by inmates themselves. But such trials are also often initiated by other parties, including prosecutors who re-open older cases in an effort to rectify wrongful convictions, according to an NBC News article about a record number of people exonerated nationwide in 2015.
Record Number Released
In 2015, a total of 149 people were exonerated nationwide, according to the NBC News article, which used statistics compiled by the National Registry of Exonerations.
That trend continued in 2016. Last year, a total of 166 people (including four people in Michigan) were exonerated nationwide, according to statistics released in March 2017 by the National Registry of Exonerations and articles by several news organizations, including AL.com.
The crimes people were exonerated for in 2016 include:
Homicide – 54 exonerations
Sexual assault – 24 exonerations
Other violent crimes – 15 exonerations
Non-violent crimes – 73 exonerations
Since 1989, a total of 2,006 people have been exonerated nationwide, according to statistics compiled by the Registry.
Reasons For Exoneration
Attitudes towards wrongful convictions and incarceration have changed in recent years, according to The New York Times. As a result, exonerations occur for many different reasons. Some of the most common reasons why wrongfully convicted people are exonerated include:
New DNA testing – This is the most dramatic and perhaps most publicized reason why many wrongful convictions are overturned. Due to advances in DNA testing, many wrongfully convicted people are found to be innocent.
New witness testimony – Witnesses often change their testimony years later. In particular, people who testified that they saw someone committing a crime later provide conflicting statements. Sometimes, such contradictions are accidental. But some witnesses initially intentionally misled authorities and provided false statements which resulted in wrongful convictions.
Official misconduct – This common cause can include a wide range of behaviors, including:
Police threatening witnesses to produce false statements
Falsified forensic results
Prosecutors concealing evidence
Reversal of guilty plea – Many people are wrongfully convicted since they were coerced into pleading guilty to charges for crimes they did not commit.
No crime committed – More than half of all exonerations last year occurred because no crime was actually committed. This is often the case with people accused of drug crimes, sexual crimes or other violent crimes which did not occur.
There are many other reasons why people are exonerated. And in each case, the specific reasons why often vary from one case to another. That’s why it’s important for people who were wrongfully convicted to discuss their case with an attorney as soon as possible.
Being exonerated of a crime is often just the beginning of a long, complicated process for former prisoners readjusting to society after being incarcerated, according to "Making Up For Lost Time: An Innocence Project Report” from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University.
First and foremost, many former incarcerated prisoners face significant financial obstacles. Since many wrongfully convicted people spent years behind bars, many do not have the education or skills required to find a job.
But it’s not just the financial obstacles many former inmates face. It’s the physical and psychological toll years of incarceration can have on people, according to The Innocence Project report. And since many inmates spent decades incarcerated, they often no longer have the support of family or friends, who may have moved or died, when they’re released from prison.
Also, just because someone is exonerated of a crime does not mean their criminal record is automatically cleared. In order to have wrongful convictions permanently removed from someone’s criminal record, they need to have their record expunged, a separate legal process.
Available Legal Options
Several legal options often exist for people who have been exonerated, according to The Innocence Project Report. The three main options for people exonerated of a crime include:
Filing a lawsuit for civil rights damages (financial compensation).
Asking state politicians to introduce a private legislative bill on their behalf in order to obtain financial compensation from the state.
Obtaining money from states that have compensation statutes which provide a uniform amount of money to all wrongfully imprisoned people.
Michigan is one such state, where lawmakers recently adopted a law guaranteeing financial compensation for all wrongfully convicted prisoners.
Michigan’s Compensation Act
In March 2017, Michigan’s Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act went into effect. Under the act, all former prisoners who have been released from jail after they have been exonerated are eligible to receive $50,000 per year for each year they were wrongfully incarcerated, according to The Detroit News.
But wrongfully-incarcerated individuals who have been exonerated need to act fast in order to make sure they’re eligible to receive such money. As of March 29, 2017, all exonerated individuals in Michigan have 18 months (until September 2018) to apply for such compensation, no matter when they were exonerated.
After September 2018, the statute of limitations for seeking compensation from the State of Michigan for being exonerated of criminal charges will become 3 years. That means if you are exonerated in October 2018, you will only have until October 2021 to apply for financial compensation from the State of Michigan.
Statistics For Michigan
Since 1991, a total of 68 people have been exonerated of crimes in Michigan, according to the most recent statistics compiled by The National Registry of Exonerations. This includes four exonerations last year and two exonerations as of March this year.
Such financial compensation “should help (exonerated people) get a new start in life, and also be a strong incentive for prosecutors and courts to tighten up their work,” according to The Detroit News. But no amount of money can ever make up for the years wrongfully convicted individuals mistakenly spend behind bars.