It is difficult to imagine a bigger affront to justice than a person being convicted of a crime he or she did not commit and then that person having to serve time in prison as a result.
Tragically, sometimes that happens in our system.
When it does, we can never truly repair the damage done to an innocent person who has had his or her life unjustly upended.
The very least we can do for those wrongfully convicted is ensure they are fairly compensated.
Unfortunately, Wisconsin law only allows for a measly amount of up to $5,000 per year in state compensation for each year of imprisonment in a wrongfully convicted person’s life, capped at $25,000 in total for all years wrongfully imprisoned.
This amount is woefully inadequate and embarrassing.
One example of a wrongfully convicted person who deserves just compensation is Daryl Holloway of Milwaukee.
In the early 1990s, without physical evidence linking him to the crimes, Holloway was wrongfully convicted of two counts of first-degree sexual assault and two counts of armed burglary, based on two gruesome incidents.
The incidents, which were partly based on either eyewitness identification or voice recognition evidence, involved victims who claimed Holloway was the person responsible for the crimes.
Holloway had alibi witnesses for both incidents and maintained his innocence.
Many years after his wrongful convictions, in 2016, DNA analysis excluded Holloway as the perpetrator of one of the assaults.
More specifically, improved DNA testing of a victim’s underwear excluded Holloway as the perpetrator and instead included DNA from an unknown third-party male.
With the help of the Wisconsin Innocence Project and the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office, which reviewed the cases and supported Holloway’s release, a judge vacated the convictions and a prosecutor dismissed the charges.
Holloway was finally released from prison in 2016 at age 48 — but not before having spent 24 years in prison.
Last week, the Wisconsin Claims Board, a five-member board that considers monetary claims against the State of Wisconsin, determined awarding Holloway the $25,000 maximum amount allowed under law for the entirety of his 24 years in prison (effectively amounting to just more than $1,000 per year) was “not adequate” in his case. The board also awarded Holloway a sum for attorney fees.
The board wrote, in part, that Holloway’s “imprisonment during the most productive earning years of his life has caused him significant and measurable economic damages” and that he “suffered the loss of multiple relationships and has ongoing psychological and emotional trauma.”
Instead of only awarding Holloway the measly maximum total of $25,000 for the 24 years in which he was wrongfully imprisoned, the board rightly has asked the Wisconsin Legislature to approve an additional payment of $975,000 to Holloway.
The Legislature must do the right thing and swiftly approve the additional $975,000 payment to Holloway for this travesty of justice.
And the Legislature must do more than the right thing only in Holloway’s case.
Although bills have been proposed in previous years in Wisconsin to increase the amount of money people can be given when wrongfully convicted and imprisoned, the Legislature has, unfortunately, failed to approve them.
While Holloway was unjustly locked in prison for nearly a quarter century, he suffered deep personal losses beyond that unimaginable travesty.
For example, while behind bars, Holloway had to endure a divorce, the death of his mother and the inability to watch his children grow up.
In a story from WBAY-TV, Holloway commented on the suffering he endured while in prison.
“I almost gave up on it when my mother died," he said. "I felt everything was gone. Because that was my rock. But I had to remember what she told me before she died. She said, ‘I don’t know and you don’t know what God may have planned for you. But you always remember he got something planned for you. And fight.’ So that’s what I got to do.”
Unfortunately, Holloway’s case is not an isolated incident or anomaly.
As DNA testing has improved dramatically over the years, many wrongful conviction cases have been found across the country.
The national Innocence Project has estimated that between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the United States are innocent.
In other words, up to 120,000 people are estimated to be sitting behind bars for crimes they did not commit.
To be clear, we have much to be proud of regarding our criminal justice system in the United States. Our system offers freedoms and constitutional rights to people accused of crimes that people in many other countries wish they had — the right to remain silent, the presumption of innocence, the jury system and more.
But as good as our system is in many areas, we must always strive to improve it.
In Wisconsin, we must dramatically increase the amount of compensation offered to people who face the horror of being wrongfully imprisoned.
A mere $5,000 per year and up to $25,000 in total for all years spent wrongfully imprisoned simply adds insult to the horrific injury that wrongfully convicted people experience.
Providing people with fair compensation is the least we can do for those who are wrongfully convicted and imprisoned in our state.
The Legislature must finally act reasonably to correct this injustice.
Casey Hoff is a criminal defense attorney, based in Sheboygan.
This article originally appeared on Sheboygan Press: Wisconsin wrongful conviction compensation must be increased