Minnesota owes more than an apology when it sends innocent people to prison, two state lawmakers say.
Michael Hansen served almost seven years in prison, convicted of murdering his infant daughter until a new investigation proved that the little girl had fractured her skull when she fell from a shopping cart several days before her death.
When Koua Fong Lee’s Toyota suddenly accelerated, killing a man and two children in the vehicle ahead, Lee was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and served nearly three years until the conviction was overturned on appeal.
Both men lost years of their lives, lost their jobs and missed seeing their children grow. Legislation proposed Tuesday by state Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, and state Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, would offer compensation — as much as $700,000, depending on the circumstances — to those who, too late, were proven not guilty.
Right now, Minnesota does more to help the guilty than the innocent, said Lesch, a prosecutor. Twenty-nine states, plus the District of Columbia, have laws offering compensation for wrongful imprisonment.
“When guilty people are released from prison, they have parole officers who help them find housing and jobs and there’s mental health and chemical-abuse counseling for them,” Lesch said.
Cases of wrongful imprisonment are rare. In recent state history, only three people have been proven not guilty of the crime that sent them to prison — Lee, Hansen and Sherman Townsend, who spent 10 years locked away before a group of Hamline University students tracked down the person actually responsible for the home invasion that sent Townsend to prison. Townsend would not benefit from this bill, but Lee and Hansen would be eligible to receive compensation if it becomes law.
The small number of exoneration cases makes it difficult to calculate the full cost of a compensation bill. In addition to financial compensation, the proposed legislation would also offer the newly exonerated financial support, medical and dental care and help finding a job.
Lee and Hansen attended Tuesday’s bill announcement.
“I’m ecstatic,” said Hansen, who came to the Capitol with his parents and his girlfriend, Shaylee Gutowski.
“All the political stuff, I don’t know too much about [but] I believe in this state … It means a lot to me and puts my faith back in the system,” Hansen said.
No amount of money will give him those years of his life back, Hansen said. When he was first convicted, “I was just lost. I felt like I was being warehoused for something I didn’t do.”
Now, he said, “it’s getting better, and just this here today shows me a lot and shows my family a lot.”
Lee, who spent almost three years away from his wife and four children, returned to the outside world without a job, afraid to drive, and a stranger to his younger children.
Compensation from the state can never restore those lost years, he said, but it might help improve life for his family in the years ahead.
“Nothing can buy the time that I [spent] far away from my family,” he said. “But it helps, a little bit.”