One of the worst nightmares imaginable is to be wrongfully convicted of a crime you did not commit. We lived this nightmare here in Minnesota.
I, Michael Hansen, was exonerated after spending six years in prison in connection with the death of my 3-month-old daughter. I didn’t think it was possible for my heart to break any more after my baby died. Then, a state medical expert incorrectly concluded that I caused her death. When the state unjustly took away my liberty, it cost me a good-paying job that was gone when I got out. It also fractured my relationship with my two older daughters, who believed their father murdered their sister.
I, Koua Fong Lee, was exonerated of killing three people when my car malfunctioned and caused a major accident. I spent three years in prison for criminal vehicular homicide, until the car manufacturer began recalling the cars for similar incidents, proving I was not at fault. During my time behind bars, I missed the birth of my daughter, and when I was finally exonerated and went home, neither she nor my young son knew who I was.
We and our families suffered so much during the years we were in prison. In 2014, Minnesota passed a law to compensate innocent people like us who were exonerated. This law acknowledges that when the state unfairly deprives people of their freedom, family and financial opportunities, it has a responsibility to provide the compensation they need to rebuild their lives.
The Minnesota Supreme Court last year invalidated a significant portion of the law because of a legal technicality. In the case, Back vs. State of Minnesota, the court ruled that the law’s compensation eligibility requirement for a prosecutor to dismiss charges after an innocent’s person conviction is reversed or vacated is unconstitutional.
However, rather than using a scalpel to fix the issue, the court used a cleaver. Instead of removing the prosecutor-dismissal requirement, the decision excluded an entire class of innocent people whose convictions were vacated or reversed. While we both received modest compensation before this ruling, under the current state of the law neither of us would be eligible.
HF 3677 would fix the law to ensure that future exonerees like us can receive some compensation. The Senate version of the bill has already passed a key committee. However, the House Public Safety Committee must schedule a hearing on the bill by Thursday, or the legislation could die. We ask House Public Safety Chairman Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, to put HF 3677 up for a vote this week.
Minnesota exonerees have enough struggles, and getting fair compensation should not be one of them.
Michael Hansen lives in Dennison, Minn. Koua Fong Lee lives in Oakdale.