Exonerated ex-inmates say state resists paying damages

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Advocates for wrongfully convicted ex-prisoners in Michigan say the state is stonewalling their efforts to recoup damages for the years they spent behind bars.

State lawmakers in 2016 passed the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act, which is supposed to pay exonerated ex-convicts $50,000 for each year they spent in prison. But the state is fighting many of those payouts, even in clear-cut cases where innocence has been established, attorneys for the former inmates say.

“You have people whose lives were ripped apart by being wrongfully convicted, and they’re being punished again because the state is fighting tooth and nail against their efforts to get compensation for the time they lost,” said Detroit attorney Gabi Silver, who represents several ex-prisoners who are trying to collect money under the statute.

Andrea Bitely, spokeswoman for the Michigan Attorney General’s Office, which represents the state in the compensation cases, defended the handling of payouts for ex-prisoners.

“State law creates the parameters for relief and we have a duty to ensure that those who seek relief fall within those parameters,” Bitely said. “The Court of Claims Act requires a filing — either notice or the complaint itself — within six months.

“These plaintiffs or their attorney have failed to comply with that act,” she said.

Silver said the state has received 23 open requests for compensation; 16 have been closed or dismissed. According to Bitely, “five individuals who have requested wrongful incarceration relief have been paid.”

In August, the first payouts under the compensation statute were $1.7 million to Edward Carter, who spent more than 35 years behind bars for a rape and robbery, and Marwin McHenry, awarded $175,753 for spending four years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of shooting a woman in the knee.

In January, Davontae Sanford was awarded $408,000 after spending nearly nine years in prison for a quadruple homicide he says he didn’t commit. Although Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy dropped the charges against Sanford in June 2016 after state police accused former Detroit police commander James Tolbert of lying about evidence in the case, Worthy has stopped short of saying Sanford, who was 14 when the killings happened in 2007, is innocent.

Sanford was awarded his claim even though Worthy did not stipulate to his innocence. Others, however, have not seen the same results, including Thomas and Raymond Highers, who spent 26 years in prison for killing a drug dealer before the charges were dropped when new witnesses came forward and refuted testimony that had convicted the brothers.

Worthy has also contested the Highers brothers’ innocence claims, despite dropping the charges against them in 2012.

“The state is denying their claim (for compensation),” Silver said. “The state doesn’t even say what they’re contesting. I called them and asked ‘what is your position on this case?’ I never got a straight answer, although they said they were contesting it. I said, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me.’

“The only thing the state can do at this point is attempt to prove that in fact they really were guilty, so I’m afraid we might be having yet another criminal trial,” Silver said. “This is hurtful on so many levels. These poor guys go to prison, get out in their 40s, and they have nothing. So they’re trying to put their lives together, and then they get denied the compensation they’re entitled to. It’s incredible.”

Thomas Highers was charged Tuesday with assaulting his estranged wife. Silver said she doesn’t think the charge will affect his effort to collect money from his prison stint.

“How can this impact what happened to him before? What he is charged with now — and those are only allegations — really has nothing to do with the fact that he was wrongfully convicted,” Silver said.

Wolfgang Mueller, an attorney who also represents several exonerated ex-prisoners seeking compensation, said he doesn’t understand why the state is fighting so hard to deny claims.

“I don’t know if they’re underfunded or what,” Mueller said. “My personal opinion is, the folks who are handling these cases are former prosecutors, and they have this mindset that if you were found guilty, you must have done it, and you only got off on a technicality.”

Mueller said he believes Sanford’s claim was approved because officials are “embarrassed” over how his case played out. A hit man, Vincent Smothers, confessed to the killings for which Sanford was convicted, and provided detailed information about the crime, including where one of the murder weapons was stashed. He was never charged with those killings, although he pleaded guilty to other murders.

“Everyone is embarrassed they locked up a 14-year old kid, and a hit man says he did it,” Mueller said. “Paying (Sanford) is just political cover. They want that case to go away.”

Silver said one of the most egregious denials by the state involves a claim by her client Julie Baumer, who was convicted in 2005 of first-degree child abuse after she took her infant nephew to the hospital and doctors found the baby had a skull fracture and had lost a lot of blood.

“Her story is so sad,” Silver said. “Julie had a drug-addicted sister who had a baby, and Julie agreed to take care of the baby. The baby had a seizure, and the doctors said Julie abused it. They said it was shaken baby syndrome. She went to trial, but her attorneys brought no experts, and she went to prison.”

In 2009, the University of Michigan Innocence Clinic agreed to represent Baumer during her appeal. A Macomb circuit judge overturned Baumer’s conviction because of the ineffectiveness of her attorney. She was released on bond and given a second trial.

During Baumer’s second trial in 2010, her attorneys called six expert witnesses who testified the baby had suffered from Venous Sinus Thrombosis, a form of childhood stroke, which has effects similar to shaken baby syndrome. A jury acquitted Baumer of all charges.

“She spent five years in prison, and when she tried to get compensation, the attorney general filed a motion for summary disposition, saying she was not acquitted on new evidence but because of ineffective assistance of counsel,” Silver said. “That shouldn’t matter under the statute, but that’s their claim. We’re working on a response.”

One of Mueller’s clients, Nathaniel Hatchett, was arrested at age 17 for rape. He spent 10 years in prison before DNA exonerated him. Prosecutors dropped the charges in 2008 and he was released from prison.

Despite the DNA evidence that excluded Hatchett as the rapist, Mueller said the state is fighting his attempts to get paid.

“The statute says you have to prove you didn’t do it, or weren’t involved in the crime,” Mueller said. “They’re saying he was found with the victim’s car four days after the rape. But he says he found it on the side of the road, hot-wired it and took it for a joyride. He was cleared of the rape by DNA. It’s ridiculous that they’re fighting his case.”

Konrad Montgomery is among the ex-convicts fighting to get paid. He spent nearly four years in prison for armed robbery before the Michigan Court of Appeals found Wayne County prosecutors misrepresented phone evidence during his trial. He was released from prison in 2016.

Although the statute requires claims to be filed within 18 months of the exoneration, Montgomery said he’s now being told he’s ineligible because of another, separate rule requiring anyone suing the state for damages to notify the state within six months of the date of loss.

“I thought I had 18 months to file, and they turn around and tell me it was six months,” Montgomery said. “The way they’re doing people who were wrongfully convicted is wrong.”


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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN