Lawmakers call for compensation for wrongfully convicted

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  • January 30, 2014 - 1:33 PM

(Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified one of the victims in the car hit by Koua Fong Lee. The sentence has been corrected, with profound apologies.)

Minnesota owes more than 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's skull fracture was the result of a fall from a shopping cart days. Koua Fong Lee served almost three years in prison, convicted of vehicular manslaughter -- a charge overturned on appeal after it was shown that his Toyota suffered from a mechanical defect that caused the sudden, unstoppable acceleration that killed a man and two children in the vehicle ahead.

Both men lost years of their lives, lost their jobs, missed seeing their children grow. New legislation proposed Tuesday by state Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, and state Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, would offer compensation -- up to $700,000, depending on the circumstances -- to those proven not guilty, too late.

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 that offer 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 In recent state history, only three people have been proven not guilty of the crime that sent them to jail -- Lee, Hansen and Sherman Townsend, who spent 10 years in prison. Eventually, a group of students from Hamline University tracked down the person actually responsible for the home invasion that sent him to jail. The deal he cut to get out of jail means 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 the bill announcement.

"I'm ecstatic," said Hansen, who came to the Capitol flanked by his parents and his pregnant girlfriend. The couple are expecting a new baby boy. "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."

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 virtual stranger to his younger children. Compensation from the state wouldn't 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."


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