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Innocence Project Clinic Case Helps Spark Wrongful Imprisonment Legislation

JANUARY 31, 2014—In 2007, Koua Fong Lee was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide and sent to prison. In 2010, due largely to the efforts of students and faculty at the Law School's Innocence Project Clinic, his conviction was overturned. The case is a major impetus behind a bill introduced this week at the Minnesota legislature—a bill that would provide financial and other compensation to people who have been wrongfully imprisoned.

Lee's case began when he crashed at high speed into the back of a car that was waiting at a traffic light in St. Paul. Three people were killed and two others injured. Lee maintained that he had tried desperately to stop his car, a 1996 Toyota Camry, but despite his efforts, it surged out of control. He was nonetheless found guilty and given a sentence of eight years. After evidence uncovered by the Innocence Project Clinic convinced a judge that Lee deserved a new trial, prosecutors declined to re-try the case. After two and a half years in prison, Lee was a free man.

But as state representative John Lesch, one of the bill's sponsors, pointed out, release from prison in such a situation may be a mixed blessing. "When guilty people are released from prison," Lesch told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "they have parole officers who help them find housing and jobs, and there's mental health and chemical-abuse counseling for them." For the wrongfully imprisoned, who've lost their jobs and been away from their spouses and children, there are no services, no remuneration. The bill aims to change that by allowing such individuals to receive up to $700,000, plus medical and dental care and employment counseling and assistance. Similar laws are already on the books in 29 states and the District of Columbia.

"This bill is not about making exonerees rich," said Julie Jonas (’95), managing attorney for the Innocence Project of Minnesota and an adjunct faculty member at the Law School for the Innocence Project Clinic. "It's about making them whole by restoring them to where they would have been had they not spent years in prison for a crime they did not commit. Of course, the money can never give them those years back, but it can help them rebuild and give them some measure of security."