There is no greater injustice than being sent to prison for a crime you did not commit. Such cases are rare. But the injury is so great that there must be compensation.
Twenty-nine states, the District of Columbia and the federal government have statutes compensating those who have been convicted of crimes they did not commit. This legislative session, Minnesota lawmakers have the opportunity to join the majority of states by passing a bill that would provide wrongly convicted Minnesotans with educational, medical and financial resources to rebuild their lives.
We all lose when a citizen is sent to prison for a crime he or she did not commit. The person’s family loses the most — missing a father, a mother, a brother, a sister. The rest of us lose when the family has no center, no breadwinner, no Little League coach. When families are torn, we all are.
Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, and Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, both with experience as prosecutors, have been working with the Minnesota Innocence Project on a bill that would provide compensation for each year a citizen served in prison for a crime he or she did not commit. The bill would provide funds for lost wages, injuries suffered in prison and educational opportunities upon release.
The bill, which enjoys bipartisan support, would not apportion blame. It would recognize that imperfect human beings cannot dispense perfect justice. We are fortunate in Minnesota to have excellent law enforcement officials, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys. Wrongful convictions are often no one’s fault. As a former assistant United States attorney, I prosecuted a man who had confessed to committing several armed bank robberies. As he awaited his sentence, a careful probation officer discovered that the man had been in jail for minor offenses when the bank robberies occurred. He was innocent as a lamb. Mental problems had driven him to confess.
Koua Fong Lee is one Minnesotan who deserves this kind of support. In 2007, Lee was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide after his car accelerated uncontrollably into another vehicle, killing three people. After Lee served almost three years in prison, the court vacated his conviction following Toyota’s recall of other cars and the discovery of new evidence concerning Lee’s car.
Michael Hansen is another Minnesotan who deserves compensation. Hansen served almost seven years in prison after being convicted of killing his infant daughter. Charges against Hansen were dismissed when numerous medical experts determined that the prosecution’s expert was wrong about the baby’s cause of death.
When Lee and Hansen were finally released from prison, they received no assistance to resume their lives. Anyone who has met either man knows that justice did not make them and their families whole upon their release. Their respective losses are too great to list, but include financial ruin for Hansen, Lee’s absence from the birth of his youngest daughter and both men spending years away from their families.
They came out of prison with no jobs, no means, no housing, no transportation and no health care. The punishment for crimes they did not commit persists long after their release from prison.
The Latz-Lesch bill would help those such as Lee and Hansen resume their lives. The amount of compensation proposed would have a cap, and an administrative law judge would determine the figure. No one would be made rich, but the law would help the wrongly imprisoned and their families begin to get their lives back.
The creation of a compensation statute is neither an ideological nor a partisan issue. Providing help to the wrongfully convicted should be something Minnesotans of all persuasions can agree on.
Jon Hopeman is co-chairman of the Minnesota Innocence Project Board.