Roger Lee Olsen doesn’t talk much about what it was like to spend two years in the Stillwater prison labeled a child rapist.
“I was supposed to have been killed in there, that much I will tell you,” he said, his jaw trembling.
Olsen was freed in 2008 once Houston County investigators discovered evidence that led them to believe his accuser, a former stepdaughter, made up the story. But even back in society, his life remains in shambles. Still living in his hometown of La Crescent, he’s unemployable, and his mental and physical health have deteriorated. Worst of all, he said, no one — not the prosecutors, the police or the state of Minnesota — has ever said, “We’re sorry.”
Now, for the first time, the apology will come from taxpayers. Olsen is among three wrongfully imprisoned Minnesotans who will receive compensation under a new state law that makes him eligible for payment for the time lost behind bars and an array of other damages, like physical and psychological injury.
Minnesota joins other states
Minnesota is the 30th state to adopt this type of legislation, but the state is also among the most progressive. While some states offer set amounts regardless of how much time was served, Minnesota law offers no less than $50,000 per year of imprisonment, and there’s no cap on payment for emotional distress and injuries. The final determination is made by a panel of judges and attorneys, who forward the amount of damages to state lawmakers for approval.
“There’s merit in the approach the Legislature took here because not everybody’s going to have the same experience,” said Eric Hallstrom, deputy commissioner for Minnesota Management and Budget, the office representing the state in settlement negotiations with exonerated prisoners. “The flexibility is a virtue, and maybe this process can help somebody that feels burned by the system restore a little faith in the fact that justice can ultimately prevail.”
It is hard to say how many other innocent Minnesotans may be eligible for financial remedies from the state, but there are three cases in active litigation in Minnesota where prisoners are believed to be innocent, said Julie Jonas, legal director of the Innocence Project of Minnesota, which spearheaded the measure that became law. Another 30 cases are being screened, and national estimates say up to 3 percent of the population could be innocent of the crimes that landed them behind bars.
“I mean, it’s life-altering in a way,” Jonas said. “It’s hard to put an economic value on it because in many ways they just never recover.”
While Olsen awaits his mediation before the panel, two other exonerated Minnesotans have reached undisclosed settlements that await approval when the Legislature convenes in March.
United by circumstances
Koua Fong Lee and Michael Ray Hansen had little in common before both were unjustly imprisoned. Lee, 38, was convicted of vehicular homicide when his Toyota suddenly accelerated in 2006, crashing into the vehicle ahead and killing three people. He was freed three years later after it was determined he wasn’t at fault in the crash.
Hansen, 38, served nearly seven years after being convicted of murdering his infant daughter before the conviction was overturned. Further investigation proved that a skull fracture was from an accidental fall from a shopping cart days before her death, when Hansen wasn’t present. Avryonna, who was 3 ½ months old, died of sudden infant death syndrome.
In a conference room at Hamline University, the Innocence Project’s headquarters, Lee’s soft-spoken demeanor contrasts with Hansen’s rapid-fire, frustrated recollection of what he went through. But a bond between the two is clear when they flash each other a look when asked about their experiences and what life has been like for them moving forward. Both attend therapy sessions and have the support of their families.
Hansen, who is engaged with three children, owns a Northfield tattoo shop, while Lee, who is married with four kids, is studying to become a social worker. A federal jury ordered Toyota to pay about $11 million to Lee, his family and the other family involved in the accident, but that verdict is now under appeal.
‘It’s hard to move on’
For both, the trauma lingers.
“It’s hard to move on when you’re still so stuck in it,” Hansen said. “Prison steals something from you, that’s for sure.”
It wasn’t easy for Lee either, given the publicity of his case. Staying in touch with his wife, Panghoua Moua, and their four children kept him afloat.
“We talked about our plans, our futures when I would get out,” he said. “We still had a long life to go, we still had futures waiting for us. We still want to support our children, and I wanted to be a better person.”
Hansen’s anger flashed through as Lee reflected.
“All you have to do is put your feet in his shoes. I mean it’s just a horrible thing to be that man and for someone to say that you did this on purpose.” Hansen said. “It makes you feel less than. And no one believes you. The people who matter won’t believe you.”
Hansen looks to Jonas, who comforts him with a hand on the shoulder.
“These are the luckiest unlucky guys I know,” she said in a hushed tone. “There are others like them in prison. What happened to them was terrible, but we were really lucky to get them out. There are certainly others in prison who are deserving of these small miracles who won’t get them.”
In 2014, Hansen and Lee heard their first apologies from lawmakers when the compensation measure passed. It was important that the Legislature hear their stories, said Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, the bill’s house sponsor.
“As [English jurist William] Blackstone said, ‘It’s better that nine guilty people go free than one innocent person go to jail,’ ” Lesch said. “It’s horrific to us that a civilized society would imprison innocent people. It’s very important that we take these claims seriously.”
‘We’re gonna expect a lot’
Sitting in the office of his attorney, Steve Meshbesher, Olsen speaks at length about how despite pressure from a court-appointed lawyer, he refused to take a plea deal on the criminal sexual conduct charges against him, and how doubts about his guilt were raised when his accuser directed strikingly similar accusations against a new stepfather.
Faced with the prospect of financial compensation, the soft-spoken 49-year-old says he might buy a decent truck. Then, for the first time, he sobs, uncertain whether he’ll ever see a dime.
“I try not to get my hopes up, because I can’t handle much more disappointment,” he said. “I think my life is gonna start all over, and it’s just crap. I have doubts. I’m always going to until it’s over.”
Meshbesher, who was not Olsen’s trial attorney, comforts his client and takes over.
“How do you put this into a financial figure? Can you imagine? The allegation of sexual abuse of a child in prison is the lowest of the low, and you’re treated that way,” Meshbesher said. “He is an emotional and psychological mess. We’re gonna ask for a lot, and we’re gonna expect a lot. And he deserves that. But at the end of the day, this sadness resonates way beyond a figure.”