Bill seeks compensation for those wrongly convicted, imprisoned

Michael Hansen
Michael Hansen takes questions from the media at a press conference in Minneapolis, Minn., on September 17, 2011, after serving six years in prison.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Michael Hansen served nearly seven years in prison after being convicted of murdering his infant daughter. But a later investigation found that her skull was damaged when she fell from a shopping cart roughly a week before her death. He walked out of prison in 2011.

"When it was over, I never got an apology, nothing. I was told 'everybody makes mistakes.'"

He's one of the people watching closely as a bill makes its way through the Minnesota Legislature that would provide compensation to people who were sent to prison and later found to be innocent.

Koua Fong Lee is paying attention to the bill too. He was convicted of vehicular manslaughter when his Toyota suddenly accelerated, crashed into three cars and killed three people in 2006. After spending three years in prison Lee was released in 2010 when his lawyers brought forth new evidence, including that Toyota recalled millions of cars for sudden acceleration problems. Prosecutors did not push for a new trial.

"When I was in prison, I missed the birth of my youngest child. It's very important for my family, and I missed that," he said.

Both Hansen and Lee say they never received any compensation from the state for the time they served. They're urging the Legislature to change that, saying the money will help anyone wrongfully convicted to get back on their feet. Both Lee and Hansen would be eligible for compensation if the bill becomes law.

Hansen, who now lives in Lonsdale, says the law won't give him his life back, but it will hold prosecutors to a higher standard.

Koua Fong Lee
Koua Fong Lee embraces his wife, Panghoua Moua, outside of the Ramsey County jail, moments after learning that Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner would not seek a new case against Lee. Lee had spent more than three years in jail after he was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide after a 2006 crash, in which he hit three other cars stopped at a red light.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

"I'm not trying to get rich off of it," he said. "I want as much of my life back as I can get. Unfortunately, the world revolves around that, money. I want to get back to where I was, and I want to be compensated for my loss."

A growing number of lawmakers agree with Hansen. Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, is the chief author of the bill in the House. It would require the state provide at least $50,000 for every year a person wrongly served behind bars. A special judicial review panel appointed by the Supreme Court would determine the full amount of money to be awarded.

Lesch said awarding money to these individuals is the right thing to do. In many instances, he said those who were convicted of a crime get greater support when they leave prison than those who have been exonerated.

"Rather than say to them, 'Well, too bad so sad, go your on way, you're free now,' we're going to try to do our best to make you whole," Lesch said. "Granted it probably doesn't, because their life is still changed, but we think this is a step in the right direction."

The Minnesota Innocence Project, which worked to get Lee and Hansen released, said three people have been convicted and later exonerated in the past 15 years in Minnesota. The organization's managing attorney, Julie Jonas, said there should be a procedure in place if it does.

"When our justice system occasionally fails and it takes away five, 10, 15 years of a person's life, we should have a way of making some sort of reparations not to make them rich, not to make them a lottery winner, but to put them in the same place that they were when the system failed them," she said.

The House Judiciary Finance and Policy Committee approved the bill by a unanimous voice vote this week. There was little debate among lawmakers, but one advocacy group is opposed to it: the Minnesota County Attorneys Association. John Kingrey, its executive director, says his organization is concerned that some people may see their charges dismissed -- but that doesn't mean they are innocent.

"Just because a case has been dismissed doesn't necessarily mean that the person was not guilty or the person is innocent because it may have been dismissed for a number of reasons," Kingrey said. He's working with the bill's authors to come up with some sort of compromise.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story was changed to clarify that prosecutors declined to retry Koua Fong Lee after he was released from prison.

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