Life after wrongful conviction is topic of WMU-Cooley panel and awards

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– PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRICE

Panelists at the WMU-Cooley symposium on wrongful convictions were, left to right, Dr. Zieva Konvisser, adjunct assistant professor, Department of Criminal Justice, Wayne State University; Valerie Newman, assistant defender, State Appellate Defender Office; State Senator Steve Bieda; and exoneree/advocate Kenneth Wyniemko. Shown on the screen (though hard to see) is Prof. Laura Caldwell, director, Life After Innocence Project, Loyola University Chicago Law School.


By Cynthia Price
Legal News

As panelists at the WMU-Cooley Journal of Practical and Clinical Law-sponsored symposium on wrongful conviction and exoneration noted, many people think that after their innocence has been proven, everything is just fine and exonerees go back to living their normal lives.
 
Nothing could be further from the truth. In addition to simple practical matters, such as how to get a job or a GED, or find a place to live, exonerees released from incarceration face a host of psychological and social adjustment challenges.

Michigan Senator Steve Bieda, who has for several sessions introduced a bill to compensate innocent people who spend time behind bars for the injustice done them, said, “One of the ironies is that we actually treat people who are rightfully convicted better than the exonerees. There are a lot of services we give to people re-entering from prison that are not available to exonerees. I find that very unfair, and that’s why I’m a champion and keep ntroducing these bills.”

In that he echoed Dr. Zieva Konvisser, a fellow at the Institute for Social Innovation, Fielding Graduate University, and an adjunct Assistant Professor, Wayne State University Department of Criminal Justice. “Exonerees are generally not qualified to receive the assistance offered for parolees. They
re-enter society without transitional services, support that is needed to re-establish control over their lives,” she said.

Konvisser’s research entailed really listening to the voices of 21 females released from incarceration after their innocence had been established. At the two-hour symposium, which took place at WMU-Cooley’s Lansing campus, Konvisser read some of their comments. (For more information and references, visit www.zievakonvisser.com/projects_articles.html)

“I was essentially kicked to the curb,” one said – no phone call, no transportation and no one to pick her up. “They didn’t give me jack! They just took the handcuffs off me and sent me out the door … Didn’t get nothin’ but ‘goodbye, we’ll holler at ya.’”

Another observed, “I don’t know where I belong, because I don’t really belong anywhere... I was fortunate to come out with a few dollars from before my incarceration so I wasn’t flat broke. But if you leave literally with the clothes on your back, it goes pretty fast … I applied for over 500 jobs as a nurse and I got none of them [because] I still cannot undo the fact that I have 25 years employment gap.”

That same woman has also faced difficulty reconciling with her children, to whom she was a stranger, and added, “We appreciate your support, but please ask us what we need; a spa treatment is nice; but I need dental care.” 

In addition to the overriding issue of compensation, paying attention to what exonerees are saying they really need was a strong theme of the symposium.

WMU-Cooley Professor Marla Mitchell-Cichon, who is the Director of the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project, served as moderator. She introduced  the founder of Life After Innocence, Laura Caldwell, who joined via video.

Caldwell is a former trial lawyer who thought she was “done with the law” but was pulled back in by hearing the story of a man who had been sitting in a Chicago jail for six years, proclaiming his innocence. Following up with that, she started taking an interest in the wrongfully convicted. “As we were talking to various people we realized, gosh there’s so much need  - it’s such a surreal journey and such a battle to get yourself out, but then you come back into a world where you don’t know how to do anything, you have no idea what an app is. You’ve spent all your time and effort trying to get out, so we decided to focus on what happens after that.”

Valerie Newman, the well-known assistant attorney at the State Appellate Defender Office, said that the initial challenge was working to investigate the claims of, and ultimately free, people who said they were innocent. Critics were resistant to the idea that something could go that wrong in the legal system, and felt it was a waste of time. 

“They can be all-consuming types of cases, and they can be expensive. Kudos to the innocence projects and the students who work there, because they have that time to spend,” Newman said.

But after careful investigation and in particular the wider availability of DNA testing started clearing people and proving the critics wrong, advocates turned to questioning, in the words of the symposium title, “Is a wrongful conviction a life sentence?”

Thirty states offer some kind of compensation.

“I realize and I’ve always realized that no amount of compensation can truly cover what they’ve been through,” said State Senator Steve Bieda. “But I also realize this is a start.”

Bieda’s bill, SB291, has not come to the floor for a vote, but he said  they are fairly confident Gov. Rick Snyder supports its passage – and in fact it was the governor’s office which suggested offering exonerees wrap-around re-entry services as part of the package.

Sen. Bieda said he will continue to push the bill as long as he is in office, but acknowledges that one obstacle is cost. It is difficult to estimate the fiscal impact; the National Registry of Exonera-tions, developed and maintained through the University of Michigan Law School’s Innocence Project, offers the best information on how many people would be eligible. Of the over-1700 exonerations nationally from 1989 to 2015, Michigan has had about 60.
Based on this, the Senate’s analysis pegs the cost at about $16 million, while acknowledging a number of variables.
 
But for panelist Ken Wyniemko, who was the first person proven innocent by the WMU-Cooley clinic, that number makes no difference. He passed around a photo of himself with an exoneree who had mental health issues. “Chris Conover was an advocate for a compensation bill in his state and after fighting for years, the bill passed. But then the governor refused to sign it. Chris was despondent over it, couldn’t understand it, and he ws so upset he blew his brains out,” Wyniemko said.

“I don’t ever want to hear another story like that,” he added. “The state put us all in prison, and they have the moral responsibility to compensate us, and the least they can do is give us mental health care. I’m not going to sit back and be quiet anymore.”

Wyniemko has not actually been very quiet since his release. A strong advocate on a variety of exoneree issues, he is in demand at conferences and other venues to urge people to support those facing life after innocence. But, he said, he is tired of being polite, and after seeing the suicides of Conover and several others, he is going to demand action.

After the panel discussion, over a buffet lunch, the group honored Sen. Bieda as well as the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project’s founding executive director (and Cooley Professor Emeritus) Norman Fell, who headed up several other clinics as well.