Bill would increase compensation for exonerees to $50K per year of incarceration, provide health care
(Madison, Wisc –
Dec. 17, 2015
) Four wrongfully convicted men who have since been exonerated due to DNA evidence provided harrowing and moving testimony yesterday at Assembly and Senate hearings in support of bipartisan legislation (AB 460/SB 322) that would vastly improve Wisconsin’s statute on compensation for the wrongfully convicted. Jarrett Adams, Chris Ochoa, Fred Saecker and Joseph Frey, all of whom were wrongfully convicted in Wisconsin or currently live in the state, discussed their cases and the difficulties that they and other exonerees faced re-entering society and obtaining compensation. The exonerees were joined by members of the Wisconsin Innocence Project and the Innocence Project in testifying in support of this important legislation, which is being led by sponsors Sens. Van H. Wanggaard (R-Racine) and Fred Risser (D-Madison), and Reps. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) and Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prarie).
Fred Saecker spent six years in prison for a rape and kidnapping he did not commit. After fighting for years to obtain the DNA evidence which ultimately proved his innocence and led to his exoneration, Fred spent six years trying to obtain some form of compensation to help him rebuild his life. He required job training and health care, and other assistance with aspects of re-entry. Fred was awarded a paltry $25,000, the maximum amount under Wisconsin’s current statute.
When Joseph Frey was exonerated of a rape he did not commit, after spending 19 years in prison, he left with serious health problems, no immediate job prospects, and no money for housing and basic costs of living. His primary residence after his release was a homeless shelter. After experiencing the gravest violation of his personal liberty, wrongful imprisonment, Joseph, like Fred, was only eligible for the grossly inadequate $25,000 payment.
Jarrett Adams was wrongfully convicted of a rape that never occurred and had eight years of his life stolen from him. When Jarrett was exonerated, he received a check for $14, the remaining sum in his prison account, minus $18 that he had been charged for the shoes issued to him upon his release. Jarrett was denied compensation by the State of Wisconsin. But Jarrett’s re-entry story is an exceptional one, in that, despite all the time and opportunities that were stolen from him, he worked his way through college and law school and is now clerking in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal court that threw out his conviction. In his testimony and in his advocacy, Jarrett emphasizes that Wisconsin and many other states do not offer nearly enough compensation and re-entry services and that his story is in no way indicative of the manner in which exonerees are able to re-adjust without adequate assistance.
Chris Ochoa was wrongfully convicted of rape and murder in Texas, and served 13 years before DNA proved his innocence and he was exonerated after the Wisconsin Innocence Project took his case. Chris moved to Wisconsin and also pursed a law degree. Chris received compensation through a civil lawsuit and was able to pay for his education because of it, but knows firsthand how difficult it is to readjust after wrongful conviction and spoke in support of AB 460/SB 322.
AB 460/SB 322 would increase Wisconsin’s statute on compensation for the wrongfully convicted to $50,000 per year of incarceration and cap the payments at $1 million. The statute would apply to the wrongfully convicted released in or after 1990. Additionally, the bill would provide health care services for exonerees. Presently, Wisconsin’s statute awards exonerees $5,000 per year and caps the payment at $25,000, not nearly enough to re-start one’s life after having years and opportunities unjustly stolen.
“Even today, I struggle to rebuild the life I had before. Because of my wrongful conviction, I lost several wage-earning years and the ability to advance in a career. All that I got from the State of Wisconsin for this miscarriage of justice was $25,000 – for the rest of my life,” said Fred Saecker. “Fair compensation would help give back what was wrongfully taken from me.”
“Wisconsin’s compensation statute is widely considered to be one of the most inadequate laws in the nation. That said, we are thrilled with this bipartisan bill, which would provide exonerees a reasonable amount of money and resources to rebuild their lives, after having years stolen from them,” said Keith Findley, Wisconsin Innocence Project co-founder. “I want to thank Sens. Wanggaard and Riser, and Reps. Kooyenga and Hebl for their bipartisan leadership on this bill, and I am hopeful that their colleagues in both chambers will pass this bill and send it to Gov. Walker for his signature. It’s the right thing to do.”
“When the government, even inadvertently, imprisons an innocent person and takes away his or her liberty, that person should be adequately compensated for such an injustice,” said Amol Sinha, Innocence Project state policy advocate. “While it is impossible to give back an innocent person the years he or she lost, it is crucial that we provide a path to try to make them as whole as possible, so that they can develop into the full, productive members of society they were intending to become. This legislation does just that; I urge the legislature to swiftly pass this important bill.”