Michigan House OKs $10M for wrongful imprisonment fund
Lansing — In the gallery above state lawmakers, Richard Phillips rose for a long round of applause after the Michigan House voted unanimously Tuesday to fund the account that could reimburse him more than $2.3 million for his wrongful imprisonment.
The 72-year-old exoneree had resorted to selling his paintings from his 45 years in prison while he awaited the money a year after Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy dismissed murder charges against Phillips and recommended he be compensated.
The nation’s longest-serving exoneree, Phillips testified before a House committee last week as it considered legislation to put $10 million into the bankrupt Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Fund.
The House-approved legislation now moves to the Senate for consideration.
“It's time to make sure we right a wrong,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland.
The bill also would require the Attorney General Dana Nessel’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 backed the legislation.
Phillips, who also served time for a 1971 armed robbery in Oakland County, has a $2.3 million claim pending in the Court of Claims that the attorney general's office is reviewing carefully, "in part because of the dual convictions and dual jurisdictions," said Nessel spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney.
The 2016 Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act requires exonerated former inmates to be paid $50,000 for each year spent in prison. Ex-inmates make the claim through a lawsuit filed against the state in the Court of Claims.
The state had chosen to settle some cases rather than make exonerees go through further litigation, but that option became unavailable because of a lack of fund money in recent months, exoneree lawyer Wolfgang Mueller said in a hearing last week.
The $10 million deposit in the fund should provide enough money to compensate pending cases through the end of the fiscal year, Johnson said. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has recommended another $10 million be added to the fund in the 2020 budget.
About $6.5 million has been appropriated to the compensation fund since its creation in 2016. The fund had a balance last week of $323,800 according to a House Fiscal Agency analysis.
The state faces liabilities of roughly $24 million for up to 39 pending wrongful imprisonment cases, 11 of which are awaiting a change in the law that would allow an expansion of the window in which they can file their claims. Those 11 cases represent roughly $2.7 million of the $24 million total.
Nessel's office estimates about 45 percent of the existing claims could be resolved before the end of the fiscal year in October.
The liability changes, however, each time another person is exonerated.