Working to compensate the wrongfully convicted


– Photo courtesy of WMU Cooley

State Sen. Steve Bieda (front row, third from right) joins all the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project team on the Capitol steps after the press conference introducing legislation that would offer compensation to individuals convicted and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. Damages would be calculated based on the number of years of their wrongful incarceration.

State Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, recently introduced legislation that will create the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act.

During a media briefing this month, Bieda was joined by five individuals who were exonerated after spending multiple years in prison. Two of the exonerees at the briefing — Kenneth Wyniemko and Donya Davis — gained their freedom through the work of Western Michigan University Cooley Law School’s Innocence Project.

The WMU-Cooley Innocence Project is part of the Innocence Network, which has been credited with the release of over 329 wrongfully accused prisoners mainly through the use of DNA testing. 

Cooley’s Innocence Project has exonerated three individuals — Wyniemko, Davis and Nathaniel Hatchett. 

“When the state puts an innocent man or woman behind bars, the state has an obligation to financially support the person’s reintegration into society,” said WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Director Marla Mitchell-Cichon. “You can never give them back the lost years, but you can do what is just and right.”

Senate Bill 291, if signed into law, would offer compensation to an individual convicted and imprisoned for a crime they did not commit, with damages calculated based upon the number of years of their wrongful incarceration.

Other damages, such as lost wages and actual medical expenses, may be recovered.

Identical legislation has been introduced in the Michigan House of Representatives, House Bill 4536.

“With the introduction of this legislation, it is my intent to help these individuals who were wrongly convicted re-establish their lives,” said Bieda. “When an individual is proven innocent they should find a state that wants to help them, not another legal battle.”

Wyniemko was released after nine years in prison and Davis after seven years.

In each case, DNA testing was used to prove their innocence.

Other exonerees from Michigan who were by Bieda’s side during the media briefing included Julie Baumer with the Michigan Innocence Clinic and brothers Thomas and Raymond Highers  with the State Appellate Defenders Office. The WMU-Cooley Innocence Project began its operation in May 2001 as a law school clinic.

Operating under Michigan’s post-conviction DNA testing law,  the project’s dual mission is to identify, provide legal assistance to, and secure the release of persons who are wrongfully imprisoned for crimes they did not commit and to provide its students with a learning experience. It is the only such project in the state.


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