Wisconsin Legislators Endorse Higher Payouts for Wrongful Convictions

By BRYNA GODAR | January 19, 2016

A state Senate committee unanimously approved a bipartisan bill Wednesday to dramatically increase the payout for people wrongly convicted of crimes in Wisconsin.

Such payouts are now capped at $5,000 for year spent behind bars, with a maximum of $25,000. The bill would raise that to as much as $50,000 per year, with an overall limit of $1 million. Those figures would be adjusted for inflation every five years.

The bill would also remove the cases of people wrongfully convicted from the state’s public court online database and would provide access to the state’s health insurance program and transitional services, such as job training and housing.

The Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee approved the bill Wednesday with little discussion, clearing the way for a full vote on the Senate floor.

Sens. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, and Van Wanggard, R-Racine, called the legislation a “great bill.”

The new compensation levels would apply to claims filed by anyone wrongly convicted who was released on or after Jan. 1, 1990. To obtain compensation, they would have to obtain a declaration of innocence from the state Division of Hearings and Appeals. If a person who is exonerated wins money in a civil lawsuit, he or she would have to repay the state the amount of the judgment or settlement.

The issue of wrongful conviction has gained increasing attention following the Netflix series “Making a Murderer,” which focuses on Manitowoc County native Steven Avery. He was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault in 1985, serving 18 years before he was exonerated. A few years after his release, he was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide in the 2005 death of photographer Teresa Halbach and sentenced to life in prison.

The “Making a Murderer” series has raised questions about the legal process used to convict Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, in Halbach’s death, prompting national interest and speculation about the case. Avery filed a wide-ranging appeal Monday, claiming authorities used an improper warrant and that a juror was out to get him.

Prior to his arrest in Halbach’s death, Avery had filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit against Manitowoc County for $36 million. He later settled for $400,000. Legislators did not mention Avery’s case during the Senate committee hearing Wednesday

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