Michigan should join states that compensate wrongfully convicted
Macomb County resident Julie Baumer volunteered to care for her sister’s unwanted baby thirteen years ago. She was a 27-year-old mortgage broker who was engaged to be married and had a full life, but she didn’t want the little boy to be put up for adoption.
But a few weeks later, she took the baby to the hospital, where doctors discovered a lot of blood on his brain. She was suspected of violently shaking the baby.
She was convicted of first degree child abuse. She lost her job, her freedom, her fiancé and her life. Four years later, a new investigation revealed Baumer was totally innocent. The baby had suffered a rare stroke.
Her conviction was overturned, and she was released from prison six years ago. But her life had been destroyed, and she received exactly nothing in compensation from the state.
These days, she cleans office buildings at night. David Gavitt, however, had it even worse. His wife and two young children died in a house fire in 1985. He had no criminal history but prosecutors convicted him of burning the house down.
Gavitt rotted in prison for 27 years until investigators for the Michigan Innocence Clinic took up the case and showed Ionia County prosecutors that the evidence had been misread. Four years ago, his conviction was overturned, and he was released. He lost a huge part of his life thanks to errors made by the state, and his compensation was also zero.
For years, State Senator Steve Bieda has sought to correct this injustice, and he finally may be close to success. A Democrat from Warren, Bieda has had rare success building bi-partisan coalitions in Lansing. Three months ago, the state senate passed his wrongful conviction compensation bill unanimously. The bill had been weakened a bit, but those totally exonerated would still get $50,000 a year for every year they were wrongly imprisoned.
This would be limited to victims who could prove they were totally innocent, not just guilty of a lesser crime. Yesterday, Bieda told me “when a wrongfully convicted person gets released from prison, it is a major news event.”
But after that, when the cameras fade and they are used to being home, they are forced to face the world penniless, their skills out of date, and they not even eligible for the sort of re-entry programs we offer convicted felons. Thirty-one states and the federal government offer the wrongly imprisoned at least some compensation, but Michigan doesn’t.
Earlier this month, a House committee passed their version of Bieda’s bill, also unanimously, and he is optimistic the full House will do so when they briefly return next month. There aren’t a huge number of people who would qualify.
The Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan law school thinks 26 people would be eligible. Bieda told me he thought this would cost the state about $12 million dollars in the first year, and significantly less afterwards. This probably would not be nearly enough to compensate Julie Baumer for the wages she lost, let alone her life. But it would be better than nothing.
“Every so often, the justice system gets it wrong,” Bieda said. This is a rare opportunity to get it right by correcting a massive injustice.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.