Saturday, April 11, 2015

Boost in wrongful conviction compensation sought

A key Republican lawmaker said Wednesday he will introduce a bill to increase by tenfold the amount of compensation Wisconsin pays to the wrongfully convicted.

State Rep. Dale Kooyenga of Brookfield said he will re-introduce a proposal that has failed to make it through the previous two legislative sessions that would pay $50,000 a year for each year an innocent person spends behind bars. The bill would call for no maximum payout, he said, and would provide additional services such as housing, transportation and health care.

Kooyenga was speaking during a break in a presentation by the Wisconsin Innocence Project at the state Capitol. Innocence Project co-director Keith Findley said the UW-Madison Law School project has led to freedom for 22 people wrongfully convicted, 19 of them in Wisconsin, since it was founded in 1998.

The state’s current compensation for the wrongfully convicted is $5,000 per year for a maximum payout of $25,000. Any amount above that must be introduced as separate legislation.

Last year, the state paid Robert Lee Stinson $90,000 after faulty bite-mark evidence put him behind bars for 23 years for a murder he did not commit. DNA evidence cleared Stinson and implicated another man, Moses Price, who confessed to the crime.

And late last month, the city of Milwaukee agreed to pay $6.5 million for its role in convicting Chaunte Ott of a murder later found to be the work of a serial killer linked to nine Milwaukee murders. Ott had spent 13 years in prison.

Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, said he plans to co-sponsor the legislation. Hebl said the strong support from Kooyenga is "huge" because of his leading role in the Republican Party, which controls both houses of the Legislature.

Kooyenga said no amount of money can pay a person back for losing liberty. But he said the state must increase compensation to help innocent people get back on their feet after they leave prison.

A former military intelligence officer, Kooyenga said he also would support laws that would improve how evidence is analyzed and collected to avoid future wrongful convictions. He said he’s open to ideas on how the state can "make sure the justice system works better."

Findley said while Wisconsin has improved the reliability of eyewitness testimony and boosted the number of police interrogations that are tape-recorded, there are still gains to be made in other areas. He mentioned problems with the accuracy and reliability of forensic science and false testimony from "jailhouse snitches."

"Those are complicated problems that really need some serious thought and some legislative efforts," Findley said. "Nothing has been done here but it’s been done in other states."

Original report here

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