State says it’s short on cash for ex­on­er­ated

The wrong­fully con­victed forced to wait for resti­tu­tion due to them un­der 2016 law

The Detroit News - - FRONT PAGE - BY GE­ORGE HUNTER The Detroit News

The state of Michi­gan owes Nathaniel Hatch­ett $500,000 — but he can’t eat the two-page court doc­u­ment or­der­ing com­pen­sa­tion for his wrong­ful rape con­vic­tion and it won’t pay his rent.

Hatch­ett was ar­rested at age 17 and charged with a sex­ual as­sault in Ster­ling Heights, and spent 10 years in prison be­fore DNA ev­i­dence ex­on­er­ated him. Pros­e­cu­tors dropped the charges in 2008 and he was re­leased from the St. Louis Cor­rec­tional Fa­cil­ity in Gra­tiot County, Michi­gan.

Hatch­ett is el­i­gi­ble un­der the 2016 Michi­gan Wrong­ful Im­pris­on­ment Com­pen­sa­tion Act for $50,000 for each year he spent in prison. In De­cem­ber, he won his pe­ti­tion, and Michi­gan Court of Claims Judge Colleen O’Brien ordered the state to pay Hatch­ett the full $500,000 by Jan. 16.

But state of­fi­cials say there’s not enough money in the fund to pay ex­on­er­ated ex-pris­on­ers. So Hatch­ett, who is un­em­ployed, and oth­ers who were wrong­fully con­victed are still wait­ing for their money.

“The state screwed these guys over by wrong­fully con­vict­ing them, and now they’re screw­ing them again by with­hold­ing money that’s law­fully theirs,” Hatch­ett’s at­tor­ney Wolf­gang Mueller said. “This is ab­so­lutely shame­ful.

“It was good to get that judg­ment (for Hatch­ett), but it’s not worth the pa­per it’s writ­ten on since they refuse to pay him,” Mueller said. “My client is hurt­ing. He’s un­em­ployed. They need

to give him his money.”

Michi­gan At­tor­ney Gen­eral Dana Nes­sel is “work­ing closely with her team to move for­ward as quickly as pos­si­ble in eval­u­at­ing these cases,” spokes­woman Kelly Ross­man-McKin­ney said in a state­ment. “How­ever, she is deeply con­cerned about the level of fund­ing avail­able.

“The cur­rent bal­ance in the fund is so low that a sin­gle case or two could de­plete it,” Ross­man-McKin­ney said. “We can­not and should not lead peo­ple to be­lieve they will be com­pen­sated for their wrong­ful in­car­cer­a­tion if we are un­will­ing to ap­pro­pri­ate the nec­es­sary funds.”

Michi­gan Depart­ment of Trea­sury spokesman Ron Leix said last week the ex­on­er­a­tion fund con­tained about $1.6 mil­lion — or $400,000 less than the $2 mil­lion it owes just one wrong­fully con­victed mur­derer, Richard Phillips. Phillips spent 46 years in prison be­fore his case was over­turned, mak­ing him the long­est-serv­ing wrong­fully con­victed in­mate in U.S. his­tory, ac­cord­ing to the In­no­cence Clinic at the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan.

Phillips, who was re­leased from prison in March, said be­cause of fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties, he was forced to sell wa­ter­col­ors he painted while in prison. The Com­mu­nity Art Gallery in Fern­dale is host­ing an ex­hibit fea­tur­ing Phillips’ art­work through Feb. 18.

“The state passed the law, and now the state has to find the money for us,” Phillips said. “I guar­an­tee you, if I owed some­body money, be­lieve me, they’d take me to court and have a judge force me to pay it.”

Mueller said he has pe­ti­tioned the Court of Claims for more than $10 mil­lion in com­pen­sa­tion for his clients, who col­lec­tively served more than 200 years in prison be­fore they were ex­on­er­ated.

State Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, who co-spon­sored the bill that led to the 2016 Wrong­ful Im­pris­on­ment Com­pen­sa­tion Act, said fund­ing has to be ap­pro­pri­ated by the Leg­is­la­ture and gover­nor.

“We’ve had con­ver­sa­tions with the AG’s of­fice and I want to con­tinue that con­ver­sa­tion to make sure we’re giv­ing these peo­ple the money they de­serve to get their lives back on track, and to try to rem­edy a mis­car­riage of jus­tice,” Chang said.

“But we’ve not yet be­gun the ap­pro­pri­a­tions process in the Leg­is­la­ture,” she said. “(Ad­ding money to the ex­on­er­a­tion fund) must be done through the bud­get process — the gover­nor gives her rec­om­men­da­tion, gets in­put from depart­ment heads, and from there the House and Se­nate do their bud­gets and find a way to come to­gether.”

Tif­fany Brown, spokes­woman for Gov. Gretchen Whit­mer, said in a state­ment: “At this time, we are not com­ment­ing on spe­cific items in the bud­get un­til the gover­nor re­leases her ex­ec­u­tive bud­get in March.”

Chang said she hopes law­mak­ers and state of­fi­cials will work toward en­sur­ing wrong­fully con­victed ex-in­mates get paid as quickly as pos­si­ble.

“I think now, while we’re wait­ing for the bud­get, is a great op­por­tu­nity to have some of the con­ver­sa­tions that need to be had,” Chang said. “The fact that the AG is aware this is an is­sue and agrees that (wrong­fully con­victed ex-con­victs) need to be paid is good, be­cause at least we can work proac­tively to en­sure we’re get­ting this done.”

Mean­while, ex­on­er­ated ex­pris­on­ers like Aaron Sal­ter are strug­gling to make ends meet.

“It ain’t fair, man; it ain’t fair,” said Sal­ter, who was re­leased from prison Aug. 16 — his 36th birth­day — af­ter serv­ing 15 years for a mur­der he didn’t com­mit.

“It’s sad — they con­vict us, and then when we’re found in­no­cent they put us out into the world with noth­ing, no pa­per­work, no birth cer­tifi­cate,” said Sal­ter, who started a non­profit, In­no­cence Main­tained, which helps ex­on­er­ated ex-pris­on­ers get ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties like food and cloth­ing.

Sal­ter said he’s lucky be­cause his girl­friend is help­ing sup­port him while he tries to get on his feet — and as he awaits the $750,000 the state owes him for the 15 years he wrong­fully spent in prison.

“It’s hard enough for me, but a lot of these guys have noth­ing and they have no­body to help them,” he said. “They had to fight all through prison, fight to prove their in­no­cence — and then the state won’t pay them? It’s too much. At least give a guy the first $50,000 to let them get back on their feet. It’s crazy how they’re do­ing us.”

Kon­rad Mont­gomery served al­most three years in prison for armed rob­bery be­fore he was re­leased in 2016 when the Michi­gan Court of Ap­peals found Wayne County pros­e­cu­tors had mis­rep­re­sented phone ev­i­dence dur­ing his trial. He said he’s been work­ing tem­po­rary jobs.

“Peo­ple are still skep­ti­cal about giv­ing me a job be­cause I’m an ex-con­vict,” said Mont­gomery, 36. “Even though I’m ex­on­er­ated, and I’ve got pa­per­work show­ing my case was dis­missed, em­ploy­ers are still wary of hir­ing me. It’s hang­ing over my head.

“The state is play­ing games with peo­ple’s lives,” Mont­gomery said. “You come home, got nowhere to live, the work­force isn’t wel­com­ing at all — the tide is against you to do some­thing il­le­gal.”

Mont­gomery said pe­ti­tioned the

Claims for $137,000.

“I could use that money,” he said. “I could get a truck and a plow, or some­thing to get me started in a busi­ness. It’s just not right to keep that money, when it’s right­fully ours. Our sys­tem is bro­ken. We need a bet­ter pro­ce­dure.” his at­tor­ney Court of

Todd McIn­turf / The Detroit News

Nathaniel Hatch­ett, 39, of Detroit spent 10 years in prison for a sex­ual as­sault he didn’t com­mit. The state owes him $500,000.

Todd McIn­turf The Detroit News

Nathaniel Hatch­ett is el­i­gi­ble un­der the 2016 Michi­gan Wrong­ful Im­pris­on­ment Com­pen­sa­tion Act for $50,000 for each year he spent in prison.

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