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Court hears case on expanding aid for wrongly convicted

Scales of Justice photo
Tim Evanson via Wikimedia | CC BY 3.0

The Michigan Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a case that could provide more money to people who are wrongly convicted of crimes.

A person who is exonerated gets $50,000 for every year spent in prison. But lower courts have declined to count time served in jail or juvenile detention before trials, saying the law doesn’t mention it.

The time can be substantial: People accused of murder, for example, can be held in jail without bond for months or years while awaiting trial.

“This is not as if we’re trying to be misers here,” said Chris Allen of the attorney general’s office. “We believe we’re only entitled to pay what the statute permits. That’s essentially our argument.”

He acknowledged, however, that the 2016 law probably wasn’t “perfectly drafted.”

The case centers on Davontae Sanford, whose murder convictions in Wayne County were thrown out because of police misconduct. He was paid $408,000 for his time in prison, but he’s also seeking $27,000 for 198 days spent in a detention center for teens.

Sanford’s attorney, Julie Hurwitz, noted that people convicted of crimes get credit on their sentences for time served in pretrial detention. So it makes sense, she added, that the same time should be eligible for compensation.

Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, who at University of Michigan law school helped free the wrongly convicted before joining the court, told Hurwitz that the “logic of your argument is easy to understand.”

Justice Brian Zahra said he prepared for the case by looking at a reference book on statutory interpretation by late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

“When it’s pre-conviction, is that detention wrongful?” he asked via video conferencing. “Absolutely,” Hurwitz replied.

“Once a person has been determined to have been wrongfully convicted, every moment they spend locked up and deprived of their liberty is wrongful.”