By John MassonAugust 20, 2012
Representatives from Michigan Law's Innocence Clinic are working to make sure a bill in the state legislature, originally designed to help compensate wrongly convicted people for the time they've lost in prison, covers anyone who can prove with clear and convincing evidence that they're innocent of the crimes they were locked up for.
Recent changes to a version of the bill that came out of the Senate Judiciary Committee restricted coverage to only those prisoners whose convictions were overturned by DNA evidence, said Prof. David Moran, who helped found the Innocence Clinic.
Because the Michigan Innocence Clinic, by design, takes only the much more difficult cases of innocent people in which DNA evidence isn't available, the current incarnation of the bill would ensure that Michigan Law's exonerees wouldn't be covered by the bill.
"There was concern that people getting off on technicalities would show up for compensation," Moran said. "But our prisoners aren't being freed on technicalities—they're being freed by the evidence. And that's why the language we want to include would require you to prove, by clear and convincing evidence, that you're innocent."
The legal standard of "clear and convincing evidence," Moran added, is second only to the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard required to obtain a criminal conviction in the first place.
Since its founding in 2008, the Michigan Innocence Clinic has freed six people convicted in error, with more in the pipeline. The latest, David Gavitt, spent more than 26 years in prison for crimes he didn't commit.
Under the bill as currently written, Gavitt would have lost fully half of his life as a result of the system's failure, and would be ineligible for any compensation—or even any transitional assistance—as he tries to establish a life outside the walls.
Moran said his first choice is to change the language of the bill already on the Senate floor with an amendment, which would then go to the House Judiciary Committee and on to the full House. If that method doesn't work, Moran said, advocates plan to shift their efforts to get better language in the House version, which would then have to be reconciled with the existing Senate version later.
"We've been meeting with key members of the Senate and the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, as well as key players in the Attorney General's Office," Moran said. "This is very important. It is so hard to exonerate people without DNA evidence."
Even so, Moran said, the legal standard he suggests would protect taxpayers from frivolous claims, even while it ensures justice for people who often spend years locked up unjustly.
"We know the people who have been victimized by the system's errors should be compensated," Moran said. "And we know the evidence in our cases is compelling. That's why we're okay with the 'clear and convincing' standard. By the time our clients are exonerated, they've certainly met that standard."
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