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Detroit area's wrongfully convicted find satisfaction helping others

George Hunter
The Detroit News
Access Plus Vice President Louise Ingram, left, and founder Darrell Siggers work on strategy for a case.

Detroit — Aaron Salter, who served 15 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, wants to turn the time spent behind bars into something positive.

Shortly after his release from prison on his 36th birthday on Aug. 15, 2018, following a Wayne County judge’s dismissal of his 2003 first-degree murder conviction, Salter founded the nonprofit Innocence Maintained. 

The organization aims to help wrongfully convicted prisoners prove their innocence and, for those who’ve already been exonerated, transition back into society.

Salter is among the Metro Detroit exonerees who are trying to piece their lives back together — and, in the process, finding satisfaction by helping others in similar situations.

“I know what these guys are going through,” Salter said. “God blessed me by giving me a second chance in life. If I can help make some other people’s lives easier, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Aaron Salter, who was wrongfully incarcerated for murder for 15 years, hands out food outside Body of Christ Church on the west side of Detroit on June 7.  Salter has devoted his life after prison to helping others.

Innocence Maintained helps exonerated ex-prisoners obtain housing, food, clothing and essentials like state identification cards and driver’s licenses, Salter said.

His organization works with Detroit churches Body of Christ and Unity Mission, where he leads a support group for the wrongfully convicted.

"It's just us exonerees in the group, talking about our problems, and our feelings, and what happened to us," Salter said. "It's a judgment-free zone."

Innocence Maintained has helped Kendrick Scott, who said it's been tough getting his feet on the ground since he was released from prison Nov. 27, 2018.

"(Innocence Maintained) helped me get my birth certificate and my Social Security card," said Scott, 40, who was wrongfully convicted with co-defendant Justly Johnson of killing a woman on Mother's Day in 1999.

The support group helped him, Scott said. "We talked about all our problems, and that was good," he said, adding one of his most pressing needs is the lack of money.

Scott is among the exonerees who are waiting to be paid from the state's Wrongful Conviction fund, which was established by the Legislature in 2016. The fund pays $50,000 for every year an innocent person spent in prison, although exonerees must petition the state Court of Claims to get their money.

Only a handful of exonerees have been paid, because the state says the fund is depleted. The state fund is poised to get a $10 million infusion after the Legislature recently approved a nearly $29 million supplemental spending bill with the extra money.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is expected to sign the supplemental bill after vetoing in May a budget appropriation that would have immediately allocated the $10 million. Whitmer said she vetoed the measure because the appropriation was included within a policy bill instead of going through an appropriations bill.

"I did more 19 years, six months and a few days," Scott said. "They owe me about $900,000."

Access Plus founder Darrell Siggers talks with his team, Wednesday, June 19, 2019, in Southfield.

Darrell Siggers, who spent 34 years in prison until his 1984 conviction was vacated and charges were dropped last year, founded Access Plus shortly after his release. The program helps prisoners and their families with innocence claims.

"We connect people to resources," said Siggers, whose office is in Southfield. "If people need prosecutor's files, court files or need to connect with a private investigator, we help them with that. Inmates don't have cellphones, and their phone access is limited, so we're a conduit that allows them to connect to resources they wouldn't otherwise be able to access."

Siggers said he keeps his fees low.

"We tell guys to give us $140 up front; $100 of that is an administrative fee, and the $40 is a program deposit," he said. "For every service we provide, it's a minimum of $3 plus a processing fee of $3. Wayne State University students help with some of the legwork.

"We do it at an inexpensive cost; lawyers cost thousands of dollars, where we usually never exceed $300. I think these are valuable services to provide to people who are in need. I know how to navigate a lot of this stuff, and I'm happy to help others do it."

Ken Wyniemko served nine years in prison before DNA evidence in 2003 exonerated him of a 1994 rape. Shortly after his release, he started the Ken Wyniemko Foundation that helped exonerated ex-prisoners by giving them a $500 check immediately after their release.

The foundation is no longer active, although Wyniemko said he still raises money to help exonerees by hosting fundraisers and other events.

"I know what it's like to walk out of prison and not have a penny to your name," Wyniemko said. "It's not a good feeling.

"The sad fact is, if you're in prison for a crime you did commit, and you're released on parole, the state would help you get housing, food stamps, job training, clothing," he said. "But exonerees who didn't do the crimes didn't get a penny. To me, that was completely ridiculous.

"Now, they have the exoneration fund, but people aren't being paid from that," he said. "I'm one of them. So there's a huge need for these programs to help exonerees."

These kinds of groups can work because their founders understand "the magnitude of the problem of wrongful imprisonment in our society," said Wolfgang Mueller, a Farmington Hills attorney who represents Salter, Siggers and other exonerated ex-prisoners.

Access Plus founder Darrell Siggers answers questions from Clara Rosales, left, and Tasneia Ahmed, who are both majoring in criminal justice at Wayne State University and interning at Access Plus.

"I applaud everything they are doing," Mueller said. "I’m sure they get an inner satisfaction from being part of the solution and not being bitter about their misfortune. They understand that bitterness keeps them from moving forward. Helping others like them helps heal their own souls as well.”

Wyniemko said he has "a need to help others who have gone through a wrongful conviction. If I see something wrong, I have to stand up and speak out, and do something about it. It's not in my DNA not to help somebody.

"That's why I do what I do: I know it's the right thing," he said. "I'm doing all I can to get into heaven when my time comes, and I think that's by helping other people. It's as simple as that."

Likewise, Salter said he feels a calling to help other exonerees.

"I've gotten so much support since I've been out," he said. "I really feel like I owe it to God to give back."