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2 lawmakers advocate compensation for wrongly imprisoned

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In the rare cases of prisoners who are proven to be innocent after they spent years in prison, their immediate reactions are often joy and relief, activists say. But then comes the difficult work of piecing together a new life after missed years of career, family and relationships.

Should exonerees be compensated? Yes, two Minnesota DFL lawmakers say.

Legislation proposed by state Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, and state Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, would offer as much as $700,000 to those proven innocent while they served their prison sentences after wrongful convictions.

As it is, the legal system does more to help the guilty who served sentences transition back to society than it does for wrongfully accused, said Lesch, a former prosector.

Two wrongfully convicted former prisoners joined the lawmakers at a news conference Tuesday, including Michael Hansen, who was released from prison after nearly seven years, The Star Tribune reports. He had been convicted of murdering his infant daughter Avryonna, but a new investigation showed the girl had fractured her skull when she fell from a shopping cart several days before she died.

“All the political stuff, I don’t know too much about [but] I believe in this state ... It means a lot to me and puts my faith back in the system,” Hansen said, the Star Tribune reported.

There's more about Hansen's case, and that of Koua Fong Lee, on the website of the Minnesota Innocence Project, which advocates for the wrongly accused.

“Nothing can buy the time that I was far away from my family,” Koua Fong Lee told WCCO.

Lee was imprisoned for three years, convicted of multiple counts of criminal vehicular homicide after a 2006 car accident in which three people died. He had argued that the car went out of control as he was trying to brake on a St. Paul freeway ramp. His case was re-examined after a massive Toyota recall, in which the carmaker admitted other cases of vehicles that had "sudden unintended acceleration."

Lee was released in 2010. While he was in prison, Lee's fourth child was born, and his wife alone raised the children, all under the age of 8 years.

Twenty-nine states and the federal government have some form of compensation law for the wrongly incarcerated, but Minnesota is among the 21 that do not, according to the Minnesota Innocence Project.

The cases are extremely rare. Only three people in recent state history have been proven innocent after they were sent to prison: Lee, Hansen and Sherman Townsend, the Star Tribune notes.

Townsend spent 10 years in prison after being falsely accused in a 1997 home invasion. His case became the focus of attention of a group of Hamline University law students who worked to prove his innocence. Ultimately, neighbor David Jones, who had falsely identified Townsend as the intruder, admitted that he had committed the crime.

Nationwide, there have been 1,300 exonerations since 1989, according to a national registry kept by law schools at Northwestern University and the University of Michigan.

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