Fund to Pay Wrongfully Convicted Prisoners in Michigan Is Broke Once Again
With the 2016 passage if its Wrongful Imprisonment Act, Michigan became one of 33 states with legislation creating a fund to compensate wrongfully convicted people, paying them $50,000 per year of their incarceration. But by early 2020 the fund didn’t even have enough money to pay off existing claims.
One of those left out is Nathaniel Hatchett, 39. Arrested at age 17 for sexual assault, he spent 10 years in prison before DNA evidence proved he did not commit the crime, and the charges were dismissed in 2008. A Michigan Court of Claims ordered the state to pay Hatchett $500,000 by January 16, 2019. But there were so many cases ahead of his that now the money still isn’t available in the compensation fund.
“It was good to get a judgment, but it’s not worth the paper it’s written on since they refuse to pay him,” said Hatchett’s attorney Wolfgang Mueller. “My client is hurting. He’s unemployed. They need to give him his money.”
Though the state has put $13 million into the compensation fund, its balance stood at just $323,800 as of March 4, 2019, leaving some exonerees, like Hatchett, unable to receive their court-ordered compensation. The state’s Attorney General, Dana Nessel, was “deeply concerned” about the low funding level, said her spokeswoman, Kelly Rossman-McKinney.
“The current balance in the fund is so low that a single case or two could deplete it,” she added.
The exoneration of David Cavity is one such case. He was awarded $1.3 million as compensation for 26 years served on three counts of felony murder he did not commit. Another case is that of Richard Phillips, 73. After his release in 2017, he became the longest-serving prisoner to be exonerated, passing a term of 46 years for a 1971 Wayne County murder he did not commit. Some of that time was served for a separate armed robbery conviction, but a judge awarded Phillips $1.5 million for 30 years of wrongful incarceration on the murder charges when they were finally dismissed in 2018.
There are several other wrongfully imprisoned people awaiting compensation already awarded. Those include Neal Reddick, awarded $780,000 for serving nearly 16 years on a criminal sexual conduct charge for which he was exonerated. Another is Ray McCann, who served 20 months for a perjury conviction in a homicide investigation for which he was exonerated in 2017 —after another man confessed to the crime in 2015 — and awarded $40,000.
As of March 2019, Michigan had 28 pending cases seeking over $24 million in compensation and legal fees for wrongful convictions. While release for an exoneree is exhilarating, picking up the pieces to restart life is tough.
“It’s hard enough for me, but a lot of these guys have nothing, and they have nobody to help them,” said Aaron Salter, 36, who was freed from prison on August 16, 2019, after serving 15 years for a murder he did not commit. “They had to fight all through prison, fight to prove their innocence — and then the state won’t pay them? It’s too much. At least give a guy the first $50,000 to let them get back on their feet.”
Lawmakers stepped up in March 2019 and budgeted $10 million to help the fund pay off some of those exonerees waiting. The state’s House of Representatives also passed legislation to refill the fund again, adding a quarterly reporting requirement to ensure it isn’t depleted anymore, as well as an exception to the state’s statute of limitations on claims that are unpaid simply because the state hasn’t made the money available.
“The most fundamental role of government is to safeguard one’s right to life, liberty and property,” said Rep. Steven Johnson (R-Wayland), who sponsored the most recent legislation. “The worst thing that could happen would be to not safeguard those rights, but to violate those rights, too.”
The state Senate approved its own version of the legislation in February 2020, sending it back to the House for a reconciliation vote before heading to the desk of Gov. Gretchen Whitmire (D), who has said she will sign it into law.