State says it’s short on cash for the wrongfully convicted

George Hunter
The Detroit News
Nathaniel Hatchett, 39, of Detroit spent 10 years in prison for a sexual assault he didn’t commit. The state owes him $500,000.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, did not co-sponsor the bill that became the 2016 Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act.

The state of Michigan owes Nathaniel Hatchett $500,000 — but he can't eat the two-page court document ordering compensation for his wrongful rape conviction, and it won't pay his rent.

Hatchett was arrested at age 17 and charged with a sexual assault in Sterling Heights, and spent 10 years in prison before DNA evidence exonerated him. Prosecutors dropped the charges in 2008 and he was released from the St. Louis Correctional Facility in Gratiot County, Michigan.

Hatchett is eligible under the 2016 Michigan Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act for $50,000 for each year he spent in prison. In December, he won his petition, and Michigan Court of Claims Judge Colleen O'Brien ordered the state to pay Hatchett the full $500,000 by Jan. 16. 

But state officials say there's not enough money in the fund to pay exonerated ex-prisoners. So Hatchett, who is unemployed, and others who were wrongfully convicted are still waiting for their money.

"The state screwed these guys over by wrongfully convicting them, and now they're screwing them again by withholding money that's lawfully theirs," Hatchett's attorney Wolfgang Mueller said. "This is absolutely shameful.

"It was good to get that judgment (for Hatchett), but it's not worth the paper it's written on since they refuse to pay him," Mueller said. "My client is hurting. He's unemployed. They need to give him his money."

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is "working closely with her team to move forward as quickly as possible in evaluating these cases," spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney said in a statement. "However, she is deeply concerned about the level of funding available.

"The current balance in the fund is so low that a single case or two could deplete it," Rossman-McKinney said. "We cannot and should not lead people to believe they will be compensated for their wrongful incarceration if we are unwilling to appropriate the necessary funds."

Michigan Department of Treasury spokesman Ron Leix said last week the exoneration fund contained about $1.6 million — or $400,000 less than the $2 million it owes just one wrongfully convicted murderer, Richard Phillips. Phillips spent 46 years in prison before his case was overturned, making him the longest-serving wrongfully convicted inmate in U.S. history, according to the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan.

Phillips, who was released from prison in March, said because of financial difficulties, he was forced to sell watercolors he painted while in prison. The Community Art Gallery in Ferndale is hosting an exhibit featuring Phillips’ artwork through Feb. 18. 

"If it wasn't for the Innocence Project, I'd still be in prison to this day," Nathaniel Hatchett said.

"The state passed the law, and now the state has to find the money for us," Phillips said. "I guarantee you, if I owed somebody money, believe me, they'd take me to court and have a judge force me to pay it."

Mueller said he has petitioned the Court of Claims for more than $10 million in compensation for his clients, who collectively served more than 200 years in prison before they were exonerated.

State Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, who supported the 2016 Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act, said funding has to be approved by the Legislature and governor.

"We’ve had conversations with the AG's office and I want to continue that conversation to make sure we’re giving these people the money they deserve to get their lives back on track, and to try to remedy a miscarriage of justice," Chang said.

"But we've not yet begun the appropriations process in the Legislature," she said. "(Adding money to the exoneration fund) must be done through the budget process — the governor gives her recommendation, gets input from department heads, and from there the House and Senate do their budgets, and find away to come together."

Tiffany Brown, spokeswoman for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, said in a statement: "At this time, we are not commenting on specific items in the budget until the Governor releases her executive budget in March.” 

Chang said she hopes lawmakers and state officials will work toward ensuring wrongfully convicted ex-inmates get paid as quickly as possible.

"I think now, while we're waiting for the budget, is a great opportunity to have some of the conversations that need to be had," Chang said. "The fact that the AG is aware this is an issue and agrees that (wrongfully convicted ex-convicts) need to be paid is good, because at least we can work proactively to ensure we're getting this done."

Meanwhile, exonerated ex-prisoners like Aaron Salter are struggling to make ends meet.

Aaron Salter distributes food outside the Body of Christ Church in Detroit on Friday, February 8, 2019. Salter was wrongfully convicted of murder and is awaiting about $750,000 the state owes him. Salter has started a program called  "Innocence Maintained," which helps fellow exonerated ex-prisoners get back on their feet.

"It ain't fair, man; it ain't fair," said Salter, who was released from prison Aug. 16 — his 36th birthday — after serving 15 years for a murder he didn't commit.

"It's sad — they convict us, and then when we're found innocent they put us out into the world with nothing, no paperwork, no birth certificate," said Salter, who started a nonprofit, Innocence Maintained, which helps exonerated ex-prisoners get basic necessities like food and clothing.

Salter said he's lucky because his girlfriend is helping support him while he tries to get on his feet — and as he awaits the $750,000 the state owes him for the 15 years he wrongfully spent in prison.

"It's hard enough for me, but a lot of these guys have nothing, and they have nobody to help them," he said. "They had to fight all through prison, fight to prove their innocence — and then the state won't pay them? It's too much. At least give a guy the first $50,000 to let them get back on their feet. It's crazy how they're doing us."

Aaron Salter (left) distributes food outside the Body of Christ Church in Detroit on Friday, February 8, 2019. Salter was wrongfully convicted of murder and is awaiting about $750,000 the state owes him. Salter has started a program called  "Innocence Maintained," which helps fellow exonerated ex-prisoners get back on their feet.

Konrad Montgomery served almost three years in prison for armed robbery before he was released in 2016 when the Michigan Court of Appeals found Wayne County prosecutors had misrepresented phone evidence during his trial. He said he's been working temporary jobs.

"People are still skeptical about giving me a job because I'm an ex-convict," said Montgomery, 36. "Even though I'm exonerated, and I've got paperwork showing my case was dismissed, employers are still wary of hiring me. It's hanging over my head.

"The state is playing games with people's lives," Montgomery said. "You come home, got nowhere to live, the workforce isn't welcoming at all — the tide is against you to do something illegal."

Montgomery said his attorney petitioned the Court of Claims for $137,000.

"I could use that money," he said. "I could get a truck and a plow, or something to get me started in a business. It's just not right to keep that money, when it's rightfully ours. Our system is broken. We need a better procedure."
(313) 222-2134
Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN