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Lawyers urge review of Michigan law compensating people wrongfully convicted

Fight for compensation called 'traumatic' for exonerees
Posted at 2:27 PM, Feb 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-24 18:55:49-05

DETROIT (WXYZ) — The murder of 17-year-old Billie Rutledge was shocking. It was early in the morning on June 4, 2005. Rutledge had been shot and paramedics had him on a stretcher when the shooter returned to the scene, ordered the paramedics to stand back. The masked man then opened fire on the teen again, killing him.

Attorney Wolf Mueller represents the man who went to prison for Rutledge's murder.

RELATED: Man wrongfully convicted of murder released from prison as another pursues state compensation

Dennis Akins, now 38, was released from a Michigan prison three weeks ago after the Wayne County Prosecutor's Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) asked a judge to vacate his life sentence and dismiss the case.

Valerie Newman, the CIU director, told the judge that new evidence showed that Rutledge's murder was tied to previous homicides and none involved Akins.

"Once the proofs finally came out 16 years later, the prosecutor's office said he was in no way, shape or form involved with this crime," Mueller said. "That is egregious police misconduct on top of bad witnesses, so it becomes the perfect storm."

Akins remembers the day a jury found him guilty of premeditated murder like it was yesterday. He said it was unbelievable and he was numb.

"You never forget that day," Akins said. "That's when my life was changed."

When he was sentenced to spend the rest of his natural life in prison, Akins had a baby on the way.

While incarcerated, his father died, and a week before he was released from prison, his stepfather died from COVID-19.

Akins is thankful that he returned home in time to celebrate his son's 16th birthday.

As a free man, Akins finds joy in the little things, including Michigan's cold weather, telling family and friends, "It's beautiful."

Mueller is now representing Akins in lawsuit filed in Michigan's Court of Claims to be compensated for the 16 years he spent in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Michigan's Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act requires any person seeking compensation to file a lawsuit and demonstrate that new evidence, discovered after their conviction, proves that they had zero involvement in the crime.

If successful, a person receives $50,000 a year for every year they were wrongfully imprisoned.

"Anybody who thinks that whatever these folks get at $50,000 per year is a lot, go do a year prison and see what it feels like," Mueller said. "I can't imagine anything worse than serving life like he (Akins) was for something you didn't do because that's a death sentence."

The requirements to receive the compensation were set by lawmakers, and attorneys Mueller and Megan Richardson of the Michigan Innocence Clinic urge a review of the statute because, as written, some people who are innocent of the crimes for which they served time, won't ever see a dime of compensation.

"Usually, when we have an official exoneration, what that means is that the individual has not only had their convictions be vacated, but the prosecution has either dismissed the case against them in light of the new evidence or retried them, but they've been acquitted," said Richardson, supervising attorney for the Michigan Innocence Clinic that focuses on cases where there is no DNA to be tested.

Much of the issues surrounding compensation revolve around what is considered new evidence.

Richardson said items that should be considered new evidence include the withholding of exculpatory evidence - evidence that shows a defendant is not guilty, or that someone's defense attorney was ineffective.

An ineffective lawyer can deprive a defendant of their constitutional rights.

"What we're discovering now is, because of the way that the compensation statute was drafted, unless the order says, specifically, finding of new evidence, it can sometimes create technical barriers to helping the exonerees get the compensation that they obviously deserve and need," said Richardson.

"It's traumatic for our exonerees to have to go back to the Court of Claims and reprove their innocence once again and to have to fight for this compensation funding," she said.

Mueller said there are parts of the statute that need to be revised because it can be next to impossible for someone determined to have been wrongfully convicted to go back in time the 10, 20, or 30 years they were incarcerated and find evidence to support their innocence and witnesses, if they're even still alive.

Mueller said, "If a prosecutor has decided you didn't do it, whether they call you exonerated or not, you are exonerated, because no prosecutor worth their salt is going to let somebody out on the streets convicted of murder, if you think that he actually did it."

Since 2017 when Michigan's Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act (WICA) was implemented, 52 people who were wrongfully imprisoned for have been compensated to a sum of $35,496,452.17.

"WICA was never intended to compensate every person who has had their case reversed or dismissed," said Robyn Frankel, who heads up Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel's Conviction Integrity Unit.

Frankel also supervises the unit that reviews the lawsuits filed by attorneys for those seeking compensation.

"These are people who went to prison for something they didn't do. They went to prison for something they didn't do and spent decades of their lives locked up in a box with no access to education, or very limited, or job training," Frankel said.

"Some have no family. Some have nowhere to live. They have nothing," she said. "The thought behind WICA is we owe people something more than a 'Thanks. Go ahead, move in under that bridge over there.' There just really has to be more societal accountability than that."

Not every case in which a conviction integrity unit determines someone has been wrongfully convicted and should be released from prison is a conclusion of innocence. And Mueller said that can simply come down to the time and manpower a CIU can devote to a case beyond determining that, at the very least, the person was wrongfully convicted.

Families of those hoping and waiting for a conviction integrity unit to review their case have advocated for those units to receive additional funding to hire additional staff to get through the load of cases of those who claim they're innocent.

"The Wayne County Conviction Integrity Unit is, frankly, one of the most effective conviction integrity units in the country," said Richardson, adding that Wayne County's CIU has been nationally recognized for their high volume of exonerations. "I would say at least 50% of the cases that we look at probably come out of Wayne County."

When Billie Rutledge was murdered in 2005, Detroit Police suspected he was connected to another homicide or knew too much about it and he was killed to keep him quiet.

Akins was picked up for questioning about a week after the homicide.

He said, "The case was just so high profile that they had to say we got somebody even if the somebody is the wrong body."

Shortly after Rutledge's murder, his brother spoke to investigators and reporters. Action News reached out to him earlier this week for comment, but, so far, he has not responded.

Rutledge's brother is currently the chief of police in a small town in Mississippi.