Wrongfully imprisoned face battle for compensation
Marwin McHenry is sleeping on his aunt’s couch, which he said is only slightly more comfortable than the prison bunk he endured for nearly four years after being wrongfully convicted of shooting a woman in the knee.
He was released May 1 from the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian, after the Michigan Innocence Clinic and Wayne County prosecutors dug into his case and found someone else was responsible for the July 10, 2012, shooting on Detroit’s west side, according to court records.
McHenry was sentenced to 16-27 years in prison.
“I appreciate that (Wayne County Prosecutor) Kym Worthy agreed to drop my case, but I had my life taken away from me, (was) thrown in prison, and then it’s like, ‘Here you go,’ and they drop you back into the world with no money, no nothing,” said McHenry, 25.
A law aimed at compensating exonerated ex-prisoners in Michigan was signed by Gov. Rick Snyder in March. Although innocence advocates say it’s a step in the right direction, they fear there will be problems when the state starts hearing cases.
Under the law, wrongfully convicted ex-convicts will be paid $50,000 for each year they served in prison, along with legal fees. But the payouts won’t be automatic, McHenry’s attorney Wolfgang Mueller said.
“It’s not a credit card application, where you can fill out a form and get your money,” said Mueller, who has filed claims for six ex-prisoners. “You have to file a lawsuit, with the state as the defendant. And it’s a lawsuit with a high burden — I have to show by clear and convincing evidence that my client didn’t commit the crime. That’s not easy.
“I’m happy this bill passed, because it’s a start, but now we need to fix the holes,” the attorney said. “One of the holes is: You’re not going to get a lot of lawyers who want to take these cases because there’s not a lot of money in it for them.”
The Michigan Attorney General’s Office, which will decide whether to pay ex-convicts the money or fight the claims, did not return phone calls for comment.
Since the law took effect March 29, 13 ex-prisoners have filed for compensation, according to the Michigan Court of Claims. No dates have been set to hear the lawsuits.
The statute specifies the judge may pay out awards in a single payment or stretch them out over 10 years, but at least 20 percent of the total must be paid up front.
McHenry said he looks forward to hopefully getting a $200,000-plus payout for his time served in prison and legal fees — but he said it’s a pittance compared with what he lost.
“Fifty thousand dollars a year is not enough,” he said. “Really, there’s not enough money in the world that would make up for what happened. It’s kind of degrading for someone to put a dollar amount on what my life is worth in the first place — but $50,000 a year is kind of ridiculous.”
When Snyder signed the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act into law, Michigan became the 32nd state, along with the federal government and the District of Columbia, to adopt compensation statutes.
But there have been problems with the statutes in other states, according to a 2009 study by the Innocence Project, which found ex-convicts had to wait an average of three years to get paid.
“In the meantime, the exoneree may lack a source of income, a means of transportation, health coverage and a stable home,” the study said.
That’s the situation McHenry finds himself in as he tries to put his life back together.
‘Somebody started shooting’
The trouble started with a feud between McHenry’s former girlfriend, Tanisha Harris, and the Bohanen family, according to court records.
A fight broke out near McHenry’s girlfriend’s house in the 8000 block of Trinity on Detroit’s west side. “Somebody started shooting,” McHenry recalled.
Witnesses told police a man with a long black gun fired into the crowd, striking Onjdua Bohanen in the knee. She initially told police she thought James Bosley — Harris’ brother — might have been the gunman.
Bohanen and two relatives later told officers that McHenry had been the shooter, court records show.
McHenry was charged with assault with intent to commit murder and felonious assault. During his trial, the three Bohanens testified McHenry was the gunman, while Harris insisted her brother, Bosley, was the gunman. McHenry was found guilty in October 2013.
Wayne County prosecutors reopened McHenry’s case in the fall of 2014, after two of Bosley’s relatives signed statements saying Bosley had been the shooter. In February 2015, three other witnesses testified in investigative subpoenas that Bosley was the gunman. In October, Bosley signed a confession saying he was the shooter.
McHenry said he was grateful to assistant Wayne County prosecutors JoAnne Kinney and James Bivens for looking into his case.
“They really did right by me,” he said. “They believed me from the start and really did a lot of work to get me out.”
The University of Michigan Innocence Clinic took up McHenry’s case last year. Law students Sarah J. Precup and Brooke E. Theodora and Worthy agreed to file a joint request to overturn McHenry’s conviction and dismiss the charges.
“After extensively reviewing this matter with investigators and assistant prosecutors I have determined that Mr. McHenry’s case should be resolved without the need for an evidentiary hearing,” Worthy said in a news release earlier this year.
The case remains under investigation, and no one has been charged in the shooting, Assistant Prosecutor Maria Miller said.
Wayne Circuit Judge Gregory Bill granted the request to set aside the conviction, and McHenry was freed.
McHenry said the initial euphoria of being released from prison was quickly replaced by concern about what he’d do next.
“I had no place to go, no money,” he said. His aunt allowed him to sleep on her couch, “but she doesn’t want me here forever,” he said. “I need to find a job and get my life together, but it’s not easy.”
‘A constant problem’
Innocence Clinic director David Moran said most exonerated prisoners are in the same situation as McHenry when they are freed.
“It’s a constant problem,” he said. “It’s not easy trying to get your life back together after it’s been interrupted by going to prison. So many of them come out with nothing.”
Moran said the new compensation law will help — but he fears the process will drag on, leaving exonerated ex-convicts in tough situations.
“(The law) is a good start, but it’s not like they’ll just get handed a check,” he said.
“I don’t want to comment on particular cases, but if you have a viable civil claim and you win, people usually get a lot more than $50,000 a year,” Moran said. “If you ask an average person how much they’d take for being locked up for something they didn’t do, I guarantee nobody would say $50,000 a year would be adequate.”
In 2015, Walter Swift settled a federal lawsuit against the city of Detroit for $2.6 million after serving 26 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. His compensation was twice as much as the maximum he’d have gotten from the state.
Under the Michigan law, exonerees who get more money in a federal lawsuit than they’d have gotten from the state cannot file for a state claim. If an ex-convict receives money from the state and later wins a federal lawsuit, the state money must be paid back.
Julie Hurwitz is looking into filing a state claim as the attorney for Davontae Sanford, who was released from prison last year after being arrested at age 14, and serving nearly nine years for a quadruple homicide he says he didn’t commit. She is doing so even as she prepares a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Detroit.
“We see no barriers to Davontae filing a claim while still pursuing the civil rights suit,” Hurwitz said, adding that the state compensation law is “uncharted legal territory. We’ll proceed and pursue whatever is in his best interests.”
Sanford echoed McHenry’s sentiment that no amount of money can compensate for what he’s lost.
“I could have done anything with my life,” he said. “I could have been a basketball player or anything. There’s no money to make up for that.”
McHenry said the toughest loss was his relationship with his son.
“He’s just getting used to me,” he said. “But a relationship has to be built. It’s a gradual process. He was scared of me at first. That made me feel terrible.
“Other than my relationship with my son, I’m just taking this whole thing as lessons learned,” McHenry said. “I wouldn’t be the person that I am right now if it wasn’t for what happened. I never really was a bad guy, but I could be better. I believe this situation has made me a better person.”