Privacy a concern for recipients of state's wrongful conviction funds
Danny Burton spent three decades behind prison walls for a murder in which he was wrongly convicted.
As he tries to rebuild his life, Burton, 52, is working as a custodian for a local self-storage company. Like many other exonerees, he is seeking money from a state fund created by the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act that was set up to compensate the wrongfully convicted for the years they lost behind bars.
His attorneys Solomon Radner and Madeline Sinkovich filed the required lawsuit Thursday for Burton, who was released in December, to get the money. Sinkovich said there is no set timetable for when an exoneree might be approved for the funds.
The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office vacated Burton's conviction after learning witnesses who said Burton helped dump the body of 20-year-old shooting victim Leonard Ruffin had been paid by police.
If the payment is approved, Burton said he plans to put the money to good use — like others who have invested some of their WICA money to open community organizations to help other struggling exonerees.
"I want to invest in an innocence project to help those who've been wrongfully convicted and don't have the skills, opportunity or knowledge to reach out to those who can help them," Burton said. "There's a lot of legal organizations out there, but you have to know where they are."
Signed into law in 2016 by then-Gov. Rick Snyder, the compensation act provides exonerees $50,000 for each year they were wrongfully imprisoned.
In December, the last of $10 million in checks from the fund's 2019 allocation were given out to men and women who were eligible for them.
The WICA awards last year ranged from $55,205 to $1.6 million. That money, while welcome to its recipients as they try to get back on their feet, comes with a problem for many exonerees: they fear it makes them a target for crime and unwelcome requests.
"They could become targets just by beingtaken advantage of," said attorney Wolfgang Mueller.
University of Michigan law school professor David Moran, also the co-founder of the university's Innocence Clinic, agreed it's a concern.
"Some of our clients certainly have been hit up by people from their past they barely remember," he said. "People suddenly come out of nowhere and say, 'I'm your great uncle and can you give me a thousand dollars ... and that is a problem."
The money is key in helping those who were wrongfully convicted and spent long, painful and hard years behind Michigan prison walls begin the journey of putting their lives back together.
The fund "helps the healing process," said Mueller, who added that he sets newly exonerated clients up with a financial planner if they need one. He also encourages them to spend carefully and find employment.
"Go get a job. That's good for the soul," he said.
On the plus side, he said the Whitmer administration has made it easier for exonerees to apply for and receive the WICA funds. Sinkovich agreed MIchigan is doing more to help the wrongly convicted.
"The state has been doing a good job of trying to free innocent people and do the right thing," she said.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said legislation last year to add $10 million to the state's fund for exonerees, "which was nearly depleted before this action," said spokesman Bobby Leddy.
"Gov. Whitmer has made a series of meaningful reforms during her first year in office to improve how people are treated when they come into contact with the criminal justice system, especially those who were wrongfully convicted," he said.
The public's interest in exonerees has heightened since last year's release of the Netflix series "When They See Us," based on the wrongful conviction of the "Central Park 5" in a 1989 rape and assault. It also has been piqued by the recently released movie "Just Mercy," which tells the story of an Alabama man who fought for and won his exoneration for a murder he didn't commit.
Pastor Terrence Devezin of United Kingdom & Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit has sought to reach out to some of the exonerated men and started a GoFundMe page late last year to help some of them.
Devezin said although the fundraising efforts weren't successful, he hasn't given up on helping the men.
"You would think that Detroit would wrap their arms around them," he said.
The pastor said he is happy that some of the men are getting the WICA funds.
"You have to keep in mind that some of those guys have been gone for so long that they don't have family members left and many of them have to start from ground zero," said Devezin. "... some have family members who don't know them very well and they have to rekindle their relationships."
Devezin said the money will help the recently exonerated men not have to lean on family members and will assist them in getting "adjusted and get acclimated" back to a life of freedom.
But, he added, they need more than money to help them adjust to life outside prison.
"Some of the big needs they have is counseling," said Devezin. "They have spent decades behind bars. It's overwhelming. They say the therapy must continue."
The Michigan Supreme Court plans to review a case about the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act this year. The case centers around whether people who were wrongly convicted of crimes should be paid for time they spent in custody before being tried.
In a ruling, the Michigan Court of Appeals said WICA makes no reference to compensating people for being locked up without bond before their trials.
The Supreme Court is reviewing the case of Davontae Sanford, whose murder convictions in Wayne County were set aside because of police misconduct. Sanford was paid $408,000 for his prison time but also wants money for 198 days spent in a detention center for teens as part of his detention prior to trial.
In Burton's case, he and another man, Paul Young, were convicted of first-degree murder in September 1987 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Ruffin was found shot to death May 2, 1987, in an alley in Detroit. Burton was accused of helping to dump the body of Ruffin, who allegedly took money from a crack house.
Years later, three people who were alleged witnesses said their statements implicating Burton, Young and David Owens were coerced by a Detroit Police detective. One of the witnesses said she was paid by a Detroit Police detective for her testimony.
Lawyers also had a statement from a cousin of Ruffin, DeAndre Bolden, who was in the car when Ruffin was shot. Bolden said Burton and two other men charged in the murder of his cousin were not involved.
Burton contacted lawyers at the National Capital Crime Assistance Network in Mancos, Colorado, seeking help to get his name cleared and be released from prison.
Burton is still trying to adjust to his freedom but said he's looking forward, not back.
"I don't feel bitter," he said.