The Wisconsin Innocence Project (WIP) does not offer formalized services to exonerees, because that’s not its area of training or expertise.
“But it depends on the individual case,” says WIP co-director, Professor Keith A. Findley.
“We do what we can. We don’t want to be like the rest of the system, and just say, ‘Good luck. Have a great life.’”
In the legal arena, the WIP has attempted to helped exonerees obtain health insurance, in addition to handling appeals of public-housing denials. But it doesn’t represent exonerees in civil wrongful-conviction lawsuits or before the Claims Board. They’ve also organized fundraisers for individuals.
Mary C. Delaney and Sheila Sullivan were law students who worked on Evan Zimmerman’s case with the WIP. Zimmerman was freed in 2005 after three years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Post-exoneration, he was unable to find employment or get health insurance. He died in 2007.
Since Delaney and Sullivan graduated, they’ve continued to volunteer for the WIP. Among their current projects is the organization of the Wisconsin Exonoree Network, or WEN, earlier this year. So far, it has brought together about 20 persons, exonerees and those who want to help them, such as lawyers, mental health professionals and social workers.
They’ve had two in-person meetings.
The idea had been discussed prior to Zimmerman’s death, and it came from the exonerees themselves, says Sullivan. Some of them have gotten involved in national exonoree networks, such as the Life After Exoneration Program (Exonerated.org), based in Berkeley, Calif. They proposed setting up a similar, local group. Many of them knew Zimmerman, and they’re getting together to honor his memory, and to effect positive change in his name.
While WEN’s goals are just being established, so far, providing support is a top priority.
The exonerees can share experiences, problem-solve and just empathize with one another. Also, they can meet professionals willing to serve them, pro bono. Sullivan hopes that, the more the word gets out about WEN, the more volunteers there will be, in locales other than just Milwaukee and Madison. Also, the more the word gets out, perhaps more exonerees will come forward. Some wrongly convicted people are freed without the WIP’s help, but there’s really no way of identifying them.
The group is also exploring the possibility of applying for grant dollars from public and private sources, says Delaney, to help the exonerees with the most critical needs.
Delaney anticipates that WEN members will get involved in the forthcoming efforts to update Wisconsin’s Compensation for Innocent Convicts statute.
Making that happen will likely require some education of the general public about the serious difficulties exonerees face — and that will be achieved by exonerees telling their stories.
“We want people to think, ‘That could’ve been me,’ and to think about the value of their own lives, and what it what it would mean to them if they lost the years between 20 and 30. When they start to really think about that, that’s when they realize what an irrevocable wound a wrongful conviction is.”
Sullivan adds that WEN will be launching a Web site in the near future, which will be linked to the existing WIP Web site.