The man found dead Friday in a parked car on Winnebago Street has been identified by his family as Forest Shomberg, a man who spent six years in prison for a sexual assault he didn’t commit.
The 49-year-old Madison man struggled with drug and alcohol addiction and suicidal thoughts after his conviction was overturned, friends and family said.
“I just feel horrible,” family member Sue Desautel of Wausau said. “Everybody is pretty much in shock.”
Shomberg’s death came just days after he completed a prison term on another charge and just weeks after he won a battle against the state Claims Board, which rejected his request for compensation for the years he spent wrongfully incarcerated for the 2002 crime.
On June 8, Eau Claire County Circuit Judge Michael Schumacher found that the Claims Board failed to investigate Shomberg’s innocence before rejecting his compensation claim.
The conviction stemmed from a 2002 incident in which a UW-Madison student was pulled from State Street and violently groped before breaking free of her attacker.
Shomberg was exonerated in 2009 after sensitive so-called touch DNA testing on the victim’s clothing revealed unknown male DNA but none from Shomberg, who claimed he was the victim of mistaken identity. The Wisconsin Innocence Project also presented evidence that the eyewitness identification of Shomberg was flawed.
“The petitioner has proven by clear and convincing evidence that he is innocent,” Schumacher wrote.
Desautel said Shomberg was scheduled to go to court next month to press his claim, which sought the maximum $25,000 compensation from the state plus $77,500 in legal fees that his mother and stepfather spent trying to prove his innocence. She said Shomberg’s survivors will now try to take up the fight.
Desautel blamed the state of Wisconsin for failing to help Shomberg after he was released in 2009. Shomberg landed back in prison as the result of an aborted suicide attempt in 2011 in which he fired a gun into the front yard of his East Side home.
Shomberg, who had a lengthy criminal record prior to his wrongful conviction, was charged as a felon in possession of a firearm. In a letter, he told U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb that he was thinking about killing himself but changed his mind after he fired a test shot into the ground.
Crabb sentenced Shomberg to a year in prison, part of which he served in an Eau Claire alcohol and drug abuse treatment center.
He was released in that case on Aug. 5. Eleven days later, Shomberg was found dead.
The Dane County Medical Examiner’s office declined Saturday to confirm the identity of the deceased person, and no cause of death was released. Police said Friday foul play was not suspected.
“When he got out of there (in 2009), they should’ve offered him some help,” Desautel said. “He couldn’t even find a job. ... That (wrongful conviction) destroyed his life, pretty much.”
Byron Lichstein, the Wisconsin Innocence Project attorney who represented Shomberg, was saddened by the news. Lichstein helped Shomberg win his release and was working with him on his compensation claim.
“It’s a sad, hard time,” Lichstein said. “I feel for his family.”
Sheila Berry, who runs Truth in Justice, a Virginia organization that publicizes wrongful convictions and advocates for the innocent, said she corresponded with Shomberg and talked with him on the phone for years. She called him smart, witty — and troubled.
Berry said after his release earlier this month, Shomberg continued his years-long struggle with drug and alcohol abuse, which was exacerbated by a failed relationship.
“He didn’t have a monkey on his back,” Berry said. “He had a gorilla.”
She said Shomberg’s fate was not unusual for people who are wrongfully convicted. She noted that Kenny Waters, a Massachusetts man who spent nearly 18 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, died in a freak fall just six months after his release in 2001. His case was the basis for the 2010 movie “Conviction.”
In Wisconsin, former Augusta police officer Evan Zimmerman, whose conviction for the murder of his former girlfriend in Eau Claire County was overturned, died of cancer in 2007 — two years after charges against him were dropped.
Beth LaBatte was released in 2006 after her conviction for the murder of two elderly sisters in Kewaunee County was overturned and all charges dropped. LaBatte, who spent 10 years in prison, died a year after her release while driving drunk.
“Many of these people, when they finally get out, die,” Berry said. “It’s really sad.”
— State Journal reporter Dennis Punzel contributed to this report.