GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A new law going into effect in March will compensate people who have been exonerated after serving time in prison.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed the legislation into law on Dec. 21. It goes into effect 90 days later on March 21. It requires the state pay $50,000 for each year a wrongfully convicted person is imprisoned.
Those seeking relief have three years after the date of exoneration to file a request for payment. Those exonerated prior to the legislation’s enactment have three years following the implementation date to file a claim.
West Michigan attorneys John Smietanka and Anne Buckleitner have represented three exonerees from the region in recent years. They say the law is long overdue.
“We’ve been following this for years,” Smietanka told 24 Hour News 8. “This is basic justice.”
Smietanka, a former U.S. Attorney turned defense attorney, says the law sends a strong message to the greater community.
“It says that our society recognizes its mistakes,” he said. “This bill is a tiny step towards remedying some of those mistakes.”
Buckleitner represents Quentin Carter, the most recent exoneree from West Michigan. He served 17 years in prison after being convicted of sexually assaulting a child, then was exonerated in 2015. Buckleitner said Carter will likely be the first client she works with to receive compensation under the new law.
Some exonerees are awarded settlements or civil judgements after an exoneration. Those payments, however, are typically only awarded in cases where law enforcement or other authorities intentionally or neglectfully botched an investigation. Some exonerations, however, are simply the result of bad science or a mistaken witness. In those cases, the exoneree may be left with no compensation.
“For someone like that, this is a wonderful development,” Buckleitner said. “Those are really tragic but inadvertent errors.”
Smietanka and Buckleitner say the new law is a significant step in making corrections when the system fails.
“$50,000 a year is not too much to put things right,” Smietanka said.
Exonerees who are awarded civil judgements will have to repay any money awarded by the state under the compensation bill.