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Assembly approves wrongful conviction compensation

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin legislators took a step Tuesday toward dramatically increasing compensation for the wrongly convicted, unanimously passing a bill in the state Assembly that would boost exonorees’ payouts and grant them state insurance and job training benefits.

Currently, payouts for the wrongly convicted are capped at $5,000 for each year spent behind bars, with a maximum payout of $25,000. The bill would raise that to $50,000 per year in prison, with an overall limit of $1 million. Those figures would be adjusted for inflation every five years.

The bill would also provide people who are wrongly convicted with access to the state’s health insurance program and transitional services, such as job training and housing. It limits access to state health coverage to five years or the period of time he or she was incarcerated, whichever is shorter.

The bill’s chief author, Rep. Dale Kooyenga, a Brookfield Republican, said he was first introduced to compensation issues when he met Robert Stinson, who was convicted in 1985 of killing a Milwaukee woman. A judge released him in 2009 after the Wisconsin Innocence Project argued bite-mark analysis and DNA evidence didn’t match evidence from the scene.

Kooyenga said he apologized to Stinson, who replied that no one from the state had ever told him they were sorry.

“This bill does not provide justice,” Kooyenga said. “We cannot provide justice to people who have been put in the spotlight and accused of rape and murder … as a legislative branch, we should continue to work and move our great justice system into a greater justice system.”

The Assembly passed the measure 98-0. It now goes to the state Senate.

The new compensation levels would apply to claims filed by anyone who was exonerated and released on or after Jan. 1, 1990. To obtain compensation, the individual would need a declaration of innocence from the state Division of Hearings and Appeals and would have to repay the state any money won in a civil lawsuit. The bill would also require removal of the individual’s case from the state’s public online court database.

The issue of wrongful conviction has gained increased attention following the release of the Netflix series “Making a Murderer,” which focuses on Manitowoc County native Steven Avery, who served 18 years in prison for sexual assault before he was exonerated. A few years after his release, Avery was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide and sentenced to life in prison in the 2005 death of photographer Teresa Halbach.

Prior to his arrest in Halbach’s death, Avery filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit against Manitowoc County for $36 million. He settled for $400,000.

Kooyenga told reporters before Tuesday’s floor session began that the measure has nothing to with Avery.

Associated Press writer Todd Richmond also contributed to this report.

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