Mike Piaskowski spent five and a half years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.
But even after a federal judge overturned the conviction in 2001 due to insufficient evidence, in many ways Piaskowski is still a prisoner of the criminal justice system that freed him.
Piaskowski was convicted in 1995 of participating with five other men in the 1992 murder of Tom Monfils, who disappeared on the job at a Green Bay paper mill. Monfils’ body was found at the bottom of a two-story vat of wood pulp with a 50-pound weight tied to his neck.
Seven years after his exoneration, Piaskowski recalls how his elation quickly evolved into frustration because of insufficient support from the state after his release.
“I lost everything I worked 46 years of my blue-collar life to achieve,” said Piaskowski, now 59. “And I have received nothing from the state. Zero.”
Like many of the 16 people who have been exonerated in Wisconsin, Piaskowski, who worked 22 years at the same mill where Monfils was killed, still is trying to find his way back to the life he knew before his conviction, with little or no guidance from the state.
Wisconsin statute qualifies people wrongfully convicted of crimes, commonly referred to as exonerees, for up to $25,000 in compensation. While the figure is more than what half of the states in the county offer, which is nothing, it ranks last among the 25 states that offer anything.
In addition, Wisconsin provides no educational, professional or emotional assistance to exonerees — measures which parolees often have available, according to John Dipko, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections.
While the level of service is dependent on the crime, the state often requires people on parole to seek job training or treatment for addiction.
“They are held accountable under our rules of supervision,” said Dipko. “Exonerees are no longer under our jurisdiction so we cannot do those types of things.”
Because of that fact, Piaskowski received little direction once he became a free man.
“The hardest part is not knowing what to do after you are released,” Piaskowski said. “I was happy to be free initially, but then when it finally sinks in, you ask yourself, ‘What can I do?’ and you don’t know where to turn.”
Blessings, Burdens of Freedom
Most exonerees and their attorneys seek compensation by way of the Wisconsin Claims Board, including David Sanders, who was released in 2007.
Sanders, who had been a Franciscan Brother and school teacher, was convicted in Milwaukee County Circuit Court in 2004 of molesting a young boy more than 20 years earlier. After Sanders served seven months in prison, the Wisconsin Innocence Project helped have the case dismissed, and the real offender eventually confessed.
When he was arrested, Sanders, who lives in Kentucky, said he “had perfect credit and modest debt.” Upon his release, his credit cards alone had him in a $15,000 financial hole because of the accrued interest.
Despite a relatively short stay in prison, Sanders received a check for $23,000 from the claims board in February, but more than $18,000 of the settlement went to attorney’s fees and he filed for bankruptcy earlier this month.
“I hated to do that [file for bankruptcy] because it’s ugly,” Sanders said. “It’s just hard to swallow because it’s something that wasn’t even my fault.”
Innocence Project attorney Byron C. Lichstein, who helped Sanders file his petition with the claims board, said exonerees have limited options when it comes to holding the state accountable for wrongful imprisonment.
Civil suits against the state are rare and difficult to prove, Lichstein said, because of the extensive protection prosecutors and police have under the law.
“You have to prove intentional misconduct on the part of the government,” Lichstein said.
Given the odds of success and cost of trying to develop a case, Sanders said he decided to move on with his life as best he could. He credits strong community support and not a check from the state, as the primary reason he has been able to survive.
Money Isn’t Everything
But not every exoneree enjoys the same network of support.
Fredric Saecker was exonerated in 1995 after serving six years of a 15-year sentence.
However, he spent the next several years battling depression, and struggled to find employment.
While he received a $25,000 settlement in 2000 from the claims board, Saecker said any amount of money would not have compensated for the time he lost in prison.
“Even if people in my situation were given $4 million, I don’t think we’d have any idea what to do with it,” said Saecker, a La Crosse native who lives in Minnesota.
Saecker said he would have benefitted more from a counseling program or educational training than a lump sum of money, which largely went to cover attorney costs.
“That [$25,000] was only a fraction of what I would have made working the [factory] job I had before I was arrested,” said Saecker, who is a forklift driver.
Saecker was convicted in 1989 in Buffalo County of second-degree sexual assault, burglary and kidnapping. His conviction was based on circumstantial evidence. DNA testing established that the semen collected from the victim could not have come from him, which resulted in his conviction being set aside.
After his release, Saecker took a job with a logging company. But at 49, he had a hard time keeping up with workers half his age and, suffering from depression, eventually checked into a clinic for treatment.
“Nobody knows what this is like, the vacuum you get dropped into and the fears that don’t make any sense,” Saecker said. “It might have been different if the state offered some type of education or counseling when I got out.”
The Avery Factor
The same could be said for the former poster child of the Wisconsin Innocence Project.
When Steven Avery was exonerated in 2003 after 18 years in prison for a rape conviction, his high profile case prompted a serious movement to upgrade state standards for those found to be wrongfully imprisoned.
WIP filed a request with the claims board asking for compensation in excess of $1 million and attorney Walter F. Kelly helped develop a $38 million civil suit against the state.
But three years later, Avery was arrested and later convicted for the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach. Avery had already been charged in the Halbach case when he received a $400,000 settlement from the state in the civil suit, almost all of which was used to cover the cost of his murder defense.
Avery was sentenced to life in prison on June 1, 2007.
According to WIP attorney Keith Findley, the only other Wisconsin exoneree to sue the state was Evan Zimmerman, freed in 2005. A wrongful conviction suit against the city of Eau Claire Police Department was dismissed in federal dist
rict court, as was an appeal after Zimmer-man passed away in July 2007.
“I think it’s a measure of how powerful our civil case was, given the defense was willing to pay $400,000 even though Steven was arrested for murder,” Kelly said.
But what if Avery had been mandated to seek counseling or job training after his initial release in 2003? Would he still be a free man today?
Kelly thinks the answer is yes.
“I don’t want to argue that it’s some justification for what Steven has been convicted of,” Kelly said. “But his reintroduction to society was very difficult and I think it would have made his life a lot easier.”
Piaskowski was especially disheartened by the outcome of the Avery situation, given that he had been unsuccessful in obtaining any compensation from the state.
“In my mind, the Avery thing pretty much destroyed the compensation issue for me,” Piaskowski said.
Telling the Story
Like Sanders, Piaskowski is trying to make the best of his current situation and not dwell on why he only lives in an 800-square foot “cracker-box” or why he was forced to take an early pension which pays him $151 a month.
“You still have to live life,” said Piaskowski, who is co-writing a book, which attempts to show the innocence of the other five men convicted in the Monfils murder case.
Piaskowski hopes the book will open some people’s eyes, though he has no illusions about getting rich, partially because of a wrongful death suit filed by Monfils’ family.
“I might get a small stipend, but that [suit] could be reopened if I ever came into a windfall,” Piaskowski said. “I’m not doing this to make money. I just know there are a lot of innocent people in prison and I hope they don’t have to go through what I have.”