State law severed allowing wrongfully convicted to seek funds

Published 5:47 pm Wednesday, September 27, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that part of a statute that allows people who are wrongfully convicted to seek compensation is unconstitutional. But to remedy it, the majority severed a section of the law that now leaves anyone who had their convictions reversed or vacated ineligible to seek payment.

Justice David Lillehaug disagreed with the fix, saying it excludes a class of innocent people that the Legislature intended to compensate.

“Innocent persons exonerated by dismissal of the charges or the verdict at a new trial are still welcome to participate in the compensation process. But innocent persons whose judgments of conviction have been reversed by the courts are shut out,” Lillehaug wrote. “This distinction is utterly irrational.”

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Minnesota’s exoneration compensation statute was enacted in 2014 to set up a framework for compensating people who had served prison time after wrongful convictions. Under the law, an individual can seek between $50,000 and $100,000 per year of imprisonment.

Wednesday’s ruling comes in the case of Danna Rochelle Back, whose second-degree manslaughter conviction was previously reversed by the Supreme Court. She sought compensation for the more than two years she spent in prison, but because of the way the law was written, she couldn’t seek payment unless prosecutors also dismissed her case — which they did not do.

Her attorneys argued that the prosecutorial-dismissal requirement violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause  because it denied eligibility to a class of people. The state argued that the language allowed prosecutors to consent to someone’s eligibility for compensation.

The Supreme Court agreed with Back and found that the provision was irrational because prosecutors can’t dismiss a charge that no longer exists.

“In essence, the Legislature has set up a regime under which a claimant’s eligibility to file a compensation petition is contingent on whether the prosecutor has performed a legally impossible act,” Justice David Stras wrote for the majority.

But instead of removing only the prosecutorial-dismissal language — which the Appeals Court did and the dissenting justices were in favor of — the majority severed the entire subdivision of the statute, which includes people in Back’s situation.

In his dissent, Lillehaug wrote that the move creates a more significant violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause by creating two categories of exonerated people.

Democratic state Rep. John Lesch, who sponsored the legislation in the House, said the statute’s language was crafted in compromise with county attorneys and the Innocence Project, and he thinks it can be amended.

“It would be my hope that we would arrive at a pretty solid bipartisan fix on this,” he said.

One of Back’s attorneys, Joseph Gangi, said he was exploring Back’s options, which could include a rehearing, asking the U.S. Supreme Court for review and working with the Legislature.

“Wrongfully convicted people have enough barriers … this has erected a brick wall to getting back on their feet — and that’s unfortunate,” he said.