On July 12, when he walked out of the Winnebago County Jail a free man for the first time in more than 20 years, Joseph Frey had no money, no identification and nowhere to live.
Frey, 54, was wrongfully convicted in 1994 of sexual assault and kidnapping, crimes for which he was serving a 102-year sentence.
When he was released earlier this month, Frey had less than a week’s supply of the dozen or so drugs he needs for a degenerative bone disease, blood clots and other health problems. He can’t afford more medication nor the required follow-up visits to the doctor.
“I’m transient,” said Frey, who is staying at the homeless shelter at Grace Episcopal Church in Madison. “I have no health coverage. Nothing.”
Added Tricia Bushnell, the Wisconsin Innocence Project attorney who led the effort to exonerate Frey: “Not an ID, not a dollar in his pocket and no promise for assistance down the road.”
Frey didn’t even have clothes to wear.
When he put on the powder-blue polo shirt and tan khakis that attorneys for the Innocence Project had brought him, he joked that he really didn’t like stripes — a reference to the clothes he wore for more than two decades behind bars.
Over the years, as he fought a mostly one-man battle to prove his innocence, much of Frey’s family support also evaporated, he said, except for his sister, Diana Lee.
She made the trip from Ohio to Oshkosh earlier this month to see her brother taste freedom for the first time since he was in his 30s.
Frey, who was convicted of an earlier sexual assault in Brown County to which he pleaded no contest, now relies on the Innocence Project and others to help him put his life back together after his conviction for the 1991 rape of a UW-Oshkosh student that he didn’t commit was overturned and the charges dropped.
Had he been released in 2005 — after completing his confinement for the Brown County assault — Frey would have gotten some help transitioning beyond prison life, Bushnell said.
But because he was innocent of the crime for which he was doing time, she said, Frey was released back out into the world with no support from the state.
“The unfortunate reality is because Joe was released through an exoneration, the Department of Corrections doesn’t provide any social services like they would for someone who would be released on mandatory release date and would be entering on paper (probation),” Bushnell said. “In those cases, they get a social worker, they help provide them transitional housing, they look into helping them look for jobs or education.
“Instead, Joe’s released with no one.”
There also was no official apology for the faulty prosecution:
• An Oshkosh police detective had destroyed physical evidence in the case before trial and after DNA tests excluded Frey, making it nearly impossible for Frey to win his freedom.
• Authorities solicited false testimony from a jailhouse informant who claimed Frey had confessed.
• Police used now-discredited methods to prompt the victim to identify Frey as her attacker, even though she repeatedly said she wasn’t sure.
In fact, Frey was saved not so much by the system but despite it. In 2010, a scrap of the victim’s bed sheet was found tucked in an envelope in the Winnebago County Clerk of Court’s office, which earlier had told the Innocence Project that all the evidence had been destroyed.
Testing on that piece revealed the DNA of another man — a convicted sex offender who went on to sexually assault two sisters, ages 12 and 13, after the rape of the UW-Oshkosh student.
In a court hearing July 12, Winnebago County Assistant District Attorney Adam Levin asked, and Judge Daniel Bissett agreed, that charges be dropped against Frey because there was no longer enough evidence left to convict him.
Levin did not respond to an email seeking further comment.
Frey’s is the second Winnebago County conviction won by then-deputy district attorney Vince Biskupic to be overturned after it was discovered that a jailhouse informant had lied and crucial evidence had been withheld from the defense. Biskupic is now in private practice. He did not respond to messages seeking comment.
“I know I’ve been victimized,” Frey said. “I think there should be repercussions for that.”
Bushnell gave credit to Levin for agreeing to the DNA testing sought by the Innocence Project. It implicated a now-deceased rapist who, his mother told Oshkosh Police in April, spent the final months of his life agonizing over a sexual assault he committed in Oshkosh but for which another man was convicted.
“There’s three victims here, the way I see it,” Frey said. “The victim was victimized repeatedly in this situation. The public was victimized by their representatives of law enforcement in Winnebago County, and I was victimized. And so far, there’s been very little accountability for that.”
If he’s lucky, Frey will qualify for the maximum $25,000 that the state of Wisconsin can award to the wrongfully convicted, or $5,000 a year for a maximum of five years. Past efforts to boost that amount — and to provide health care, housing and other services for exonerated prisoners — have been unsuccessful.
“That’s not even minimum wage for one year,” Frey said. “I mean, look, it’s nothing. Is the injustice that shallow it could be wiped away like that, so nonchalantly? I don’t think so. I just hope that it changes. Because it’s not right.”
Frey insisted he is not bitter about the extra eight years he spent in prison. Self taught in criminal law, Frey said he hopes for a time when he can “pay it forward” and help other inmates get justice.