ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) — The Minnesota House Monday took a big step toward compensating people who were wrongfully convicted of a crime. It passed a bill that would pay the victims tens of thousands of dollars for every year they spent in prison.
Prosecutors say they know of only three cases in the last 50 years where inmates have been wrongfully convicted for a crime they did not commit, and Minnesota could soon join a couple of dozen other states in paying those people for the years they spent in prison.
St. Paul resident Koua Fong Lee was wrongfully convicted of vehicular homicide and given an eight-year prison sentence. He was released after three years in prison when Toyota admitted its cars sometimes accelerated uncontrollably.
Lee could be among the first Minnesotans to be compensated for the years he spent in prison for a crime he did not commit.
A bill from State Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, pays wrongfully convicted Minnesotans at least $50,000 for every year they’re incarcerated.
“If you’ve been exonerated, we’re going to try to make you whole,” said Lesch, a St. Paul Democrat.
The state could also pay attorney fees, medical and dental expenses, college tuition, and overdue child support incurred while in prison, amounts that Lesch says might not be enough.
“I have my doubts as to whether or not it is,” he said. “But it is the state of Minnesota saying “You know what? Here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re going to try to make you whole as best we can.”
Getting the money isn’t automatic, however.
After release, a wrongfully convicted citizen must appear before a state panel and offer “clear and convincing evidence” they’re not guilty.
Cautious prosecutors say getting out of prison doesn’t always mean someone is innocent.
“They are innocent of the conviction that resulted in them being sent to prison,” said John Kingrey, Executive Director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association. “They have been exonerated, which is slightly different from a claim of innocence.”
The Minnesota Innocence Project won exoneration for two Minnesotans in the last few years. And with modern investigative techniques, including DNA testing, Lesch says there could be more in the future.