Minn. panel approves payment of $1.8M to three freed after wrongful convictions

Koua Fong Lee, left, and Michael Hansen testify.
A state legislative committee has unanimously signed off on payments for Koua Fong Lee, left, Michael Hansen, right, and Roger Lee Olsen, not pictured. All three men spoke at a meeting of the Joint House/Senate Subcommittee on Claims Tuesday.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Three Minnesotans who were wrongfully convicted of crimes and later exonerated are a step closer to getting money from the state.

A legislative committee unanimously signed off on payments to Michael Hansen, Roger Lee Olsen, and Koua Fong Lee Tuesday. Altogether the men are seeking nearly $1.8 million. The three are the first to make claims under a compensation bill lawmakers passed two years ago.

In 2011, Michael Hansen walked out of the Douglas County Jail in Alexandria a free man. He was nearly halfway through a 14 year sentence for killing his three month-old daughter Avryonna when a judge overturned his conviction.

New evidence from the Innocence Project of Minnesota found Avryonna did not die of blunt force trauma as Ramsey County Medical Examiner Michael McGee claimed at trial, but probably from suffocation in her sleep. Five forensic experts who examined the case said the girl's skull fracture was most likely the result of falling out of a shopping cart several days earlier, not from being slammed into a wall or floor.

Under a state law passed in 2014, Hansen is seeking nearly $917,000 for his wrongful conviction.

At a meeting of the Joint House/Senate Subcommittee on Claims, Hansen told lawmakers there's no way he'll get back the six-and-a-half years he spent behind bars. But the money will go a long way toward the slow process of putting his life back together.

Hansen, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, said he's still adjusting to life on the outside.

Talking about his jouney
Michael Hansen was photographed at his tattoo shop, Kinship Collective Tattoo, in Northfield, Minn., in March. Hansen was wrongfully convicted of murdering his daughter and spent more than five years in prison.
Richard Marshall | File for MPR News

"Going to prison as someone who's murdered a child makes you the lowest of the low in prison and I had a target on my back the whole time," he said. "While I was in prison I got beat up, but I could never report this for fear of being called a snitch."

Besides repaying his parents, who took out a second mortgage to cover his legal expenses, Hansen says he doesn't know exactly what he'll do with the money.

Another man seeking compensation is Roger Lee Olsen. He was freed from prison in 2008 after the stepdaughter who'd accused him of sexual assault recanted her testimony. Olson is seeking $475,000. The La Crescent man told lawmakers he's still struggling to cope with being labeled a child rapist.

"I can't get my life back," he said. "Psychiatrists don't know what to do to help. They've never seen a case like mine before."

Koua Fong Lee
Koua Fong Lee
Brandt Williams | MPR News file

Koua Fong Lee's exoneration was perhaps the most public. A judge tossed out Lee's vehicular homicide conviction in 2010 after news came out that Toyota vehicles similar to his sometimes accelerated unintentionally. His lawyers argued Lee wasn't to blame for a rear-end crash four years earlier in St. Paul that killed three people.

Like Hansen and Olsen, Lee is receiving therapy to help him deal with all he's been through. And he said it's been tough to rebuild relationships with his four children. After giving emotional testimony at last night's hearing, Lee said he'll be glad when that check for $395,000 finally arrives.

"Nothing can buy the time that I spent in prison. And nothing can change what my family and I went through," Lee said. "But I'm very happy to see that Minnesota recognized us."

Roger Lee Olsen, left, and State Rep. John Lesch
State Rep. John Lesch listens as Roger Lee Olsen, left, testifies at a legislative committee Tuesday. Lesch sponsored new compensation legislation in the House two years ago.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

State Rep. John Lesch sponsored the compensation legislation in the House two years ago. Lesch — a St. Paul DFLer and former prosecutor — says it's vital that those wrongfully convicted of serious crimes be compensated when the criminal justice system doesn't deliver justice.

"It absolutely is important that this is provided as a stopgap for a judicial system that in all other ways is very good," Lesch said.

After the committee's unanimous approval of the men's claims, they go next to the full House and Senate, where Lesch expects very little opposition.