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Jack Lessenberry

COMMENTARY

Michigan ponders compensation for those wrongly convicted

However, the state House has yet to act

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Lessenberry

THE BLADE
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LANSING — Nobody should ever be forced to endure the lives David Gavitt and Julie Baumer were forced to endure. Nobody, that is, except maybe actors in a cable TV murder mystery series.

They were both wrongly convicted of horrendous crimes. Mr. Gavitt, a former factory worker in Ionia, spent nearly 27 years in state prison after allegedly setting a fire in March, 1985, that burned his wife and two baby daughters to death.

Ms. Baumer was a 27-year-old mortgage broker in Macomb County in 2003, happy and engaged to be married, when she volunteered to take care of her sister’s unwanted baby.

When the baby became ill, she took him to the hospital, where doctors found a large quantity of blood in his brain. She was accused of violently shaking him and convicted of child abuse.

She served four years behind bars and lost her fiancé, her career, her life, and the chance to have her own children.

But both David Gavitt and Julie Baumer were innocent.

Finally, after years in prison, and the efforts of people who believed in them, they both got out. 

How much were they compensated as a result?

Nothing. Not a penny. Had they been guilty felons who had done their time, they would have been eligible for certain re-entry programs, but they don’t even qualify for them.

Finally, however, something may happen to change that. For years, State Sen. Steve Bieda (D., Warren) has fought to win some compensation for those who are totally exonerated.

“It is time for Michigan to do the right thing,” he told me. “Thirty-one other states offer compensation to the wrongfully convicted. It is time for Michigan to do the right thing.”

His fellow senators agreed, and in a rare show of bipartisanship, his bill passed the state Senate unanimously June 9.

The state House has yet to act, and Mr. Bieda hopes they will when they return next week for a final session before the November election. If not, and if they also fail to pass it in a lame duck session after the voting, he will have to start over again.

After compromises and negotiations, Mr. Bieda’s Senate bill 291 would grant those totally cleared $50,000 for every year spent behind bars. That’s more than some states; less than others. (Ohio provides up to $51,908 for the wrongfully imprisoned, but the award is not automatic; the person has to file suit in the Court of Claims.)

“In a way, this is not enough. No amount would ever be enough,” he told me. “Would you give up your career, your family, and your liberty for $50,000 a year?”

Mr. Bieda, who is midway through his second term, said he knows he can’t give people their lives back.

But his intention is to give those returning from prison a chance to re-establish their lives and perhaps gain some skills.

“When the joy of freedom fades, the wrongfully convicted face the world penniless,” he said. “Their work skills are outdated, and society has moved on.

“Without any type of compensation law, we are forcing them to endure more struggle and suffering when they get out.”

That is especially acute in the case of someone like David Gavitt. Four years ago, thanks to diligent efforts on the part of the University of Michigan law school’s Innocence Clinic, a re-examination of the Gavitt case proved that experts totally misread evidence.

Four years ago, the Ionia County prosecutor agreed that there was no evidence the fire was deliberately set and said the conviction should be overturned and Mr. Gavitt released.

He emerged into a world vastly different from the one he last saw as a free man, in an era before cell phones or the Internet.

His family was dead, and he has struggled ever since. Julie Baumer only served four years, but that was enough to ruin her life.

Fortunately, her case attracted the attention of a Roman Catholic nun four years later, who found a new lawyer and some medical experts.

They quickly discovered that the bleeding in the baby’s brain came from a rare stroke, not from child abuse.

Ms. Baumer was quickly exonerated, but she hasn’t been able to find steady employment since. The woman who once sold mortgages now cleans office buildings at night, Mr. Bieda said.

She has, however, written and published a novel: An Undeserved Sentence. Senator Bieda agrees she deserves better.

Estimates vary, but the number of victims currently eligible for compensation is between 26 and 32.

The rules for eligibility are quite strict. Those who qualify would need to be completely exonerated and have their convictions overturned because of new evidence of actual evidence.

“Every so often,” Mr. Bieda, himself an attorney, told his colleagues, “the justice system gets it wrong.” 

It is only just, he reasons, that those who make the laws try to make it right.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com

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