House panel OKs $10M extra to compensate wrongfully convicted

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — The nation’s longest-serving exoneree left prison in 2017 with no Social Security card, no state identification, no credit and little in the way of support.

Richard Phillips, 72, said he has resorted to selling paintings from his 45 years in prison as he awaits a promised $2 million payment from the state for serving time for a murder he didn’t commit. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy dismissed charges against Phillips in March 2018.

"They say that I’m owed $2 million. Hopefully one day I’ll get it, but if not I’ll go on surviving,” Phillips told lawmakers Wednesday as they considered legislation to restock the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Fund.

The House Appropriations Committee voted 29-0 Wednesday to report a bill to the full House for a $10 million appropriation to the fund that would compensate who were wrongfully imprisoned, an amount they hope is enough to last through the end of October.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer backs a $10 million supplemental payment for this year and is proposing another $10 million for the fund in next year's budget. 

The bill also would require the Attorney General’s office to report quarterly to the House and Senate all payments made from the fund, any payments that failed to be made, the reasons for any claim denials, the dollar amount of each claim awaiting settlement and the fund’s balance. The Attorney General's office backs the legislation.

The quarterly reports will ensure “that the fund doesn’t become bankrupt again,” said bill sponsor Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland.

The fund created under the 2016 Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act requires exonerated ex-inmates to be paid $50,000 for each year spent in prison. Former inmates make the claim through a lawsuit filed in the Court of Claims.

In some cases, the state has chosen to settle rather than make the exonerees go through the rigors of a lawsuit. But that option has been unavailable in recent months due to shortages in the fund, said Wolfgang Mueller, an attorney representing 11 exonerees in the claims process.

“This bill, $10 million, is a stopgap measure,” Mueller told lawmakers. “Frankly, it's not enough.”

About $6.5 million has been appropriated to the compensation fund since its creation in 2016. As of Monday, the fund had a balance of $323,800 according to an analysis by the House Fiscal Agency.

Exonerees in 39 wrongful imprisonment cases who have made claims against the state have yet to be paid. Eleven of those cases, totaling $2.7 million in claims, have been dismissed because the exonerees missed the window in which to file, but Senate bills under consideration could change the timeline for filing and resurrect those claims.

Without the dismissed claims, the House Fiscal Agency estimates the remaining 28 cases represent a potential liability of $21.3 million in wrongful imprisonment claims. That liability changes, however, each time another person is exonerated.

Attorney General Dana Nessel's office estimates about 45 percent of the existing claims could be resolved before the end of the fiscal year in October.

Johnson said Whitmer’s $10 million supplemental will not be needed if lawmakers are able to pass his bill, but is a good fallback if the legislation stalls.

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