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MN bill would compensate the wrongly imprisoned

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ST. PAUL — Michael Hansen served almost seven years in state prison for a crime he did not commit.

When he was released from prison, Hansen received no state assistance for housing, transportation, health care or insurance. Nor did he receive an apology.

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Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, is sponsoring a bill to establish a compensation process for the few cases where a person is determined to be innocent of a crime for which they were wrongfully incarcerated.

Approved Tuesday by the House Ways and Means Committee, the bill now goes to the House floor.

“We only have one life to live, and those seven years got taken from me,” Hansen told the House Judiciary Finance and Policy Committee March 26.

Accused of killing his 3-month-old daughter, he was exonerated when a district court ruled that a medical examiner erred regarding the cause of his daughter’s death.

Trying to keep his emotions in check, he spoke of how his parents worked hard all their lives, and instead of having money for retirement, they had to pay attorney fees to help their innocent son.

“This isn’t something that’s supposed to make me and my family rich; it’s supposed to help me get my life back,” Hansen said. “This has stolen everything from me. I was building a family; I had a full-time job, benefits. It was a place I never thought I was going to leave. … My life halted as soon as I entered those doors.”

In addition to the creation of a compensation panel of three attorneys or judges to determine damages, the bill would authorize at least $50,000 to the claimant for each year of imprisonment and at least $25,000 per year served on supervised release or as a registered sex offender.

“Minnesota does not help those who served time and were later found innocent get reintegrated into society,” Lesch said. “When guilty people are released from prison, parole officers help them find housing and jobs and there’s mental health and chemical counseling available for these folks. We do more to help them become productive members of society than we do for those who in the very few instances are found not to be guilty of the crimes they did not commit.”

Lesch said compensation statutes exist at the federal level and in 29 other states and the District of Columbia.

“There’s only one thing worse than being accused of a crime; that is to be accused of a crime which you did not commit,” former federal prosecutor Jon Hopeman told the judiciary committee. “The bill does not cast blame. It simply recognizes that we as imperfect human beings cannot perfectly administer justice.”

Koua Fong Lee was released after 33 months in prison when it was determined his Toyota experienced an acceleration malfunction causing it to crash into another car, killing a man and two children.

He missed the birth of his youngest child while wrongfully incarcerated, and he had to regain the trust of his other children when released.

“Nothing can buy the time that I spent away from my family, but this compensation statute would help a little bit,” he told the committee. “Passing this legislation is the right thing to do.”

Cook writes for the nonpartisan Session Daily (www.house.leg.state.mn.us/sessiondaily) in the Minnesota House Public Information Office.

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