Senator Bieda’s Battle to Compensate the Wrongfully Imprisoned
December 23, 2016
After a 12-year legislative battle in Lansing that often became ensnared in partisan politics, Michigan has become the 31st state to provide financial compensation for the innocent who were wrongfully imprisoned by the criminal justice system.
The bill signed by Governor Rick Snyder on Wednesday afternoon will provide $50,000 per year incarcerated to those who are exonerated and gain their freedom.
On a national scale, Michigan should have been far ahead of the curve on this issue as only four other states have experienced more cases of wrongly convicted inmates over the past 25 years. This new state law represents a victory for dozens of falsely incarcerated people, but the win also reflects the perseverance of Senator Steve Bieda, a former House member, who took on this issue starting in 2003. Over many years he wandered through the “tough-on crime” crowd in the House and Senate as he sought to distinguish “guilt” from “innocence”.
While lawmakers adhered to narratives played out in fictional TV dramas, people across Michigan were being convicted based on flimsy facts. Those who were vindicated and released from prison provided “feel good” stories for the media, but their awkward re-entry into society often failed to match a story book ending.
“This is a justice issue with people denied their freedom,” said Bieda, a Warren Democrat. “These are people who have gone through hell and back.”
Advancements in DNA evidence played a major role in the series of exonerations. In addition, other basic instances of faulty evidence, including inaccurate facial identifications by so-called crime witnesses, also played a role. But too many lawmakers could not fathom that inmates behind bars were entirely innocent, as these legislators assumed that the convicted “must have done something wrong.”
Perhaps the most infuriating aspect of this story is that, after having been cast aside by the legislature over several sessions, it suddenly received unanimous approval in the state Senate last June and then passed the House in December by a 104-2 margin. Try explaining that multi-year chronology to the average voter–or those falsely imprisoned.
What was different in the state Capitol this time? The Governor’s newfound emphasis on criminal justice reform in early 2015, followed by his public support for a compensation bill for the exonerated, provided momentum. At the same time, term limits and its revolving door of legislators created an opportunity to inform those newly-elected about the nuances of the issue.
The Chicago-based Innocence Project (and the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic) stepped in to provide data and educational efforts about the hundreds of falsely convicted revealed across the nation, starting in the 1990s.
The two bill package signed by Snyder will provide reimbursement for attorney fees and expenses experienced by those cleared by the justice system, in addition to a $50,000 allocation for every year of being locked up.
Unfortunately for some, the legislative action comes too late.
Michigan has endured 66 exonerations since 1991, according to a national registry maintained by the University of Michigan. Those individuals spent a combined 511 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit. Yet, some of those wronged by the system are now deceased and a few have already received compensation through an expensive civil lawsuit process.
At this point, an estimated 33 absolved individuals qualify for compensation under the new law, costing the state at least $12.8 million.
Bieda first became interested in the exonoree-compensation issue after being approached by Ken Wyniemko, who served nine years in prison for rape, breaking and entering, and armed robbery until DNA evidence revealed his innocence in June, 2013. Wyniemko, of Clinton Township, had been sentenced to serve 40-60 years behind bars.
The ultimate passage of the legislation signed by Snyder was aided by evidence revealed in two recent cases. One was the highly-publicized prison release of Detroit resident Davontae Sanford, 23, in June, who was accused of a series of killings at age 14. He spent eight years in the corrections system until a known hit-man later confessed to the murders. The other involved Julie Baumer of Roseville, who spent four years in prison on a felony child abuse conviction that was overturned in 2010 with help from attorneys at the U-M Innocence Clinic. Her ordeal received national attention on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”
Over time, news coverage slowly became an ally in the bid to make Michigan the newest state to provide compensation for those imprisoned based upon phony evidence. However, it was Senator Steve Bieda’s unrelenting advocacy that kept the issue front and center.
Bieda was not informed by the governor’s office that Snyder would be signing the bill this past Wednesday. During the brief ceremony, Snyder proclaimed that, “We will never be able to fully repay those who have been wrongfully imprisoned.”
Senator Bieda found out about the end to his long legislative journey when reporters called seeking comment on the governor’s celebratory bill signing.
A freelance writer from Macomb County, was the political reporter at The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. At the Daily he earned 50 journalism awards and in 2014 he was named by Politico as one of the “Media Stars” in seven political battleground states. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.