There aren’t a lot of things that Democratic Sen. Lena Taylor of Milwaukee and Republican Sen. Glenn Grothman of West Bend agree on.
But they do see eye to eye on this: Robert Stinson of Milwaukee deserves a lot more money from the state for the 23 years he spent in prison for a murder he did not commit.
The two, along with Democratic Sen. Dave Hansen, are lead sponsors of a bill that would award Stinson, 49, an additional $90,000 on top of the normal maximum $25,000 payout for those wrongfully convicted in Wisconsin.
In fact, support is growing among both parties to boost the amount of compensation for everyone in Wisconsin exonerated of crimes for which they’ve been imprisoned.
Rep. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Corrections, and Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, last week began seeking co-sponsors for a bill to greatly boost compensation to the wrongfully convicted. Similar bills have failed to advance in the previous two legislative sessions.
In addition to increasing the annual payout to $50,000 from $5,000, the measure would require the state to provide services such as health care coverage. It would lower the burden for proving innocence for those seeking compensation. And it would require a judge, rather than an appointed board, make the decision about whether to award compensation.
The bill, if passed, “brings Wisconsin more in line with other states,” said Byron Lichstein, an attorney with the Wisconsin Innocence Project.
Currently under Wisconsin law, the state Claims Board can pay no more than $5,000 a year, up to five years, to compensate innocent people who have been wrongfully imprisoned.
Any payments beyond that are possible only through special bills passed by the Legislature. The Claims Board had recommended that Stinson get $90,000 more in compensation.
The Stinson bill, Senate Bill 249, is sponsored by a bipartisan group of 19 lawmakers, including Sens. Taylor, D-Milwaukee; Grothman, R-West Bend; and Hansen, D-Green Bay. It’s scheduled for a public hearing Tuesday before the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor, which Grothman chairs.
Stinson, then 20, was convicted in 1985 of murdering a neighbor based on a now-discredited forensic analysis that claimed Stinson’s teeth matched bite marks on Ione Cychosz.
He was released from prison in 2009 on the strength of evidence that the bite marks in fact did not match — Stinson was missing a tooth — and DNA found on the victim excluded Stinson and matched another man, Moses Price. Price confessed to the crime and now is serving a life sentence.
The Stinson bill would add to the $25,000 that Stinson was awarded by the state Claims Board in 2010. If the measure is approved by both houses and signed by Gov. Scott Walker, Stinson would get a total of $115,000 from the state — $5,000 for every year he was incarcerated.
State payouts ‘miserly’
Of the 29 states that offer any compensation, Wisconsin’s is the smallest, said Keith Findley, co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project.
“We’re dead last around the country for the amount we provide per year for wrongful convictions,” Findley said. “That $5,000 a year is the most miserly in the country, and the $25,000 maximum is the second most miserly.”
But that could change — dramatically — if the bipartisan proposal being circulated for co-sponsorship is successful. The bill sponsored by Bies and Hebl would:
• Boost annual compensation for a wrongful conviction to $50,000 a year from the current $5,000 with no maximum award.
• Reimburse for all actual reasonable attorneys’ fees.
• Provide immediate temporary assistance to former inmates who have been exonerated or released because their convictions have been overturned.
• Change the burden of proof from “clear and convincing evidence” to a “preponderance of evidence,” the same burden in other civil cases.
• Eliminate the requirement that compensation be made only in cases in which a petitioner shows that he or she did not contribute to the wrongful conviction through action or inaction.
• Require that an administrative law judge, rather than the five-member Claims Board, decide whether compensation is warranted.
• Allow public defenders to represent those seeking compensation.
• Add exonerated individuals to the state employee health care plan.
• Make provisions of the bill retroactive to those released on or after Jan., 1, 1990.
Lichstein said he will be there Tuesday pulling for Stinson, whom he said has been doing “as well as you could hope for anyone who was locked up when he was very young and served 23 years.” He said the $90,000 would help Stinson “get back on his feet in a more long-term way.”
And he’s heartened by the bipartisan support, not only for compensating Stinson, but for doing more in Wisconsin for the wrongfully convicted.
“I think it’s very significant,” Lichstein said. “I think that what it shows is the subject of wrongful convictions is not a partisan issue. Anyone who has an interest in the government operating fairly and admitting when it makes mistakes should support this.”