Michigan House OKs $10 million to compensate exonerees

Posted at 9:34 AM, Mar 13, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-13 09:34:26-04

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The Michigan House voted unanimously Tuesday to spend an additional $10 million to compensate people who were wrongfully convicted of crimes, moving to replenish a fund that is nearly empty.

The bill, which was sent to the Senate for consideration next, would help the state address outstanding claims totaling between $21.3 million and $24.2 million.

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last week proposed adding $20 million to the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Fund, half this fiscal year and half in the budget that starts in October. The legislation would cover her request for the current budget year.

"It's time to make sure we right a wrong," said the sponsor, Republican Rep. Steven Johnson of Wayland.

He said the bill would help exonerees such as Richard Phillips, who was released from custody in 2017 and, in 2018, became the longest-serving U.S. inmate to win exoneration. He was cleared in a 1971 homicide after an investigation by University of Michigan law students and the Wayne County prosecutor's office. Phillips, who sells paintings he created in prison to get by, could be eligible for more than $2 million under a 2016 law that compensates the wrongfully convicted $50,000 for each year spent in a state prison.

The fund had about $324,000 as of March 4, according to the nonpartisan House Fiscal Agency.

"It is the law. We passed a bill that said we're going to pay you $50,000. It's incumbent upon us as lawmakers to fulfill our obligation," Johnson said.

The measure also would require the state attorney general to issue quarterly reports detailing payments made from the fund, those ordered but not yet paid and the number of known claims pending.

There are 39 claims for which no compensation has been issued, including 11 that were dismissed when the Court of Claims ruled that they had not been filed on time. Separate legislation, pending in the Senate, would clarify that the 2016 law that made exonerees eligible for payment also gave them a longer window in which to sue.

After voting, House members applauded Phillips, who looked on from the gallery. He had testified in support of the bill during a committee hearing last week.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy supports Phillips' effort to be compensated for his years in prison. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who supports the additional $10 million in funding, is reviewing the case.

It is complicated because Phillips has a separate armed robbery conviction in Oakland County for which he served his sentence. He is seeking $2.3 million plus costs and attorney fees.