LANSING, Mich. (WLNS) – PART ONE: Tonight at 6 p.m. we kick off Part One of our two-part series on wrongful prison convictions here in Michigan and across the country.
It’s a problem affecting tens of thousands of people and their families nationwide.
While there has been some progress in getting those wrongfully convicted out of prison, experts on the topic say there’s still a long way to go.
Donya Davis: 7 years. Kenneth Wyniemko: 9 years. Nathaniel Hatchett: 10 years. Jamie Peterson: 16 years. Eddie Lloyd: 17 years. Walter Swift: 26 years.
6 people, 6 different stories, all served time behind bars in Michigan for crimes they did not commit.
“It’s really important for the public to think about the fact that this is an issue that actually affects everyone,” said Marla Mitchell-Cichon, the director of the WMU Cooley Law School Innocence Project.
According to the Innocence Project, about 20,000 people in prison right now are innocent. It’s an issue Mitchell-Cichon has made her number one priority.
“These are very difficult cases and often times my office and other offices, we work years to release one individual,” said Mitchell-Cichon.
In fact, the National Registry of Exonerations reports only 2,500 people in the United States have been exonerated to date, including 166 who served time on death row.
“The leading contributing factor is misidentification, not surprisingly,” said Mitchell-Cichon.
Mitchell-Cichon says other causes for wrongful convictions can include misconduct by police and prosecutors and poor legal representation.
“We also are particularly poor at identifying individuals from a different race,” said Mitchell-Cichon.
“It’s really angering in a way that you know these people were convicted and it’s so clear that they didn’t commit the crime,” said Kellie McGuire, a law student at the WMU Cooley Law School Innocence Project.
In Michigan, Senate Bill 291 passed in 2016 compensates those who are wrongfully convicted and released and offers them up to $50,000 within three years of exoneration.
But McGuire says the transition for those released isn’t easy.
“Some of these people have been in prison for 40+ years, by the time they get out, where are they going to go? A lot of them don’t have family left, friends left,” said McGuire.
It’s something Kenneth Wyniemko can personally relate to.
“I was sentenced to 40 to 60 years in prison for this crime that I did not commit. I had no prior record, criminal record up until that point,” said Wyniemko.
Wyniemko was accused of 15 counts of first degree criminal sexual conduct, armed robbery, and rape in 1994. A crime he remembers hearing about in the newspapers, but never imagining he’d go to jail for.
“I told him, I said your honor, I’m going to tell you the same thing that I told police, you’re making a terrible mistake, I didn’t know who this woman was, I never raped a woman or mistreated a woman in my life, and I told him, I made it very clear to him, I said I can’t show remorse for something I didn’t do or have any knowledge of,” said Wyniemko. “The judge told me that he didn’t care what I thought, the majority of my peers found me guilty, and have a nice life, and he sent me to Jackson prison for 40 to 60 years.”
Wyniemko was exonerated in 2003 and 16 years later he’s a free man, using his time to help others who are wrongfully convicted in hopes of giving them a second chance at life.
“Never, ever, lose your faith, keep praying, God will answer your prayers in his time,” said Wyniemko. “Never give up hope, never give up faith, and if there’s any way that I or anyone at the Innocence Projects that I’m associated with can help, please write, you can write to the Cooley Law School in Lansing. We’d be more than happy to help and we don’t charge a penny.”
The most common way to get innocent people out of prison is post-conviction DNA testing, which became legal in Michigan in 2001.
PART TWO: We’re here for you with part two of our two-part series on an organization called “The Innocence Project” that’s working to free those wrongfully accused of crimes in our country.
As we reported in part one of this series, roughly 2,500 people in the United States have been exonerated by DNA testing to date, of those 166 served time on death row.
It’s an issue many are working to shine a light on and one metro Detroit man who 6 News spoke to went through the entire thing first hand.
“I promised to the Lord when I was in prison, if you bring the truth to light, for the rest of my life I will dedicate the rest of my life to helping other men and women prove their innocence, because no one in this country, no one in this country, should have to go through what I or my fellow exonerees had to go through, never,” said Kenneth Wyniemko.
Wyniemko grew up in metro Detroit. He had big dreams and a bright future ahead of him, until:
“Unfortunately in 1994 I was arrested, wrongfully convicted of a crime that I didn’t commit, there’s 15 counts of CSC one, rape in the first degree, armed robbery, and rape,” said Wyniemko.
According to court records, the victim testified she was repeatedly raped over a three hour time period, saying the man tied her to her bed, blindfolded her with underwear, and stole $2,500 from her purse.
“She said that she had a deep cleft chin, a deep voice, a deep guttural voice, she estimated his height at 6’2″ to 6’3″, and he weighed about 220, 230 pounds about 30 years old,” said Wyniemko. “At the time I was 43 years old, 5’10”, I weighed 185 pounds.”
Wyniemko says police showed up at his house ten weeks after the crime and arrested him.
“I said, ‘I don’t even know what you’re talking about,’ she mentioned the lady’s name, I said ‘I don’t know who you’re talking about, I don’t know who that lady is,'” said Wyniemko.
He says he was bullied by police, the lead detective telling him:
“He says, ‘You know what Wyniemko? I’m going to start calling you the million dollar man.’ I said ‘You want to tell me what that’s supposed to mean because I have no idea what you’re talking about?’. His exact words were: ‘Wyniemko, by the time I get done f**ing with you, it’s going to cost you a million dollars to get your a** out of prison,'” said Wyniemko.
Court records show during trial evidence proved that Wyniemko had a different blood type than what was left on the victim’s sheets, but another prisoner testified that Wyniemko did commit the crime.
Records also show that the prisoner had made a deal with a prosecutor to avoid a life sentence in his own case.
“Two days the jury came back and found me guilty on all counts. I was sentenced to 40 to 60 years in prison,” said Wyniemko.
That happened on November 9th: his father’s birthday.
“I felt like someone had hit me with a stun gun, all I could see was a fog, and for a minute I thought I died and was in hell, I don’t know where the hell I was at, it’s like I was frozen in time,” said Wyniemko. “It’s a day that I’ll never forget, no matter how, I’ve been home now for 16 years and no matter how hard I try to forget it I can’t.”
After spending nearly a decade behind bars studying the law and working with the Innocence Project towards his release, Wyniemko won his battle and became a free man.
It’s now his life’s purpose to help others going through the nightmare that he did.
“No one should especially have to go through a situation as horrible as mine was, where we proved in federal court that the three detectives, the assistant prosecutor, the trial judge, the court appointed attorney, and the jail house snitch, they all conspired to convict an innocent man,” said Wyniemko.
Unfortunately, Wyniemko’s father passed away while he was behind bars. One of the first things he did when he got out was visit his father’s grave.
“We went to the grave, Kim and I knelt down got on my knees and kissed his headstone, I said ‘Dad, I made it home. I made it home.’ There wasn’t a cloud in the sky,” said Wyniemko. “All of a sudden there’s like this light drizzle coming down on me and Kim, and I looked at her and Kim looked at me and said, ‘Kenny, what’s going on?’ and I looked up in the sky and said there’s not a cloud anywhere. I told Kim, I says ‘Kim, my dad knows that I made it home, that’s what that tells me,’ and I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”
The name of the man who actually committed the crime is Craig Gonser. Unfortunately, he couldn’t be charged for this crime, specifically because it was outside of the statute of limitations.
But, he did get sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison in 2010 for exposing himself to his one year old daughter and for other sexual acts in the 1990s.
If you want to learn more about the Innocence Project, click here.
If you want to learn more about Wyniemko’s story, click here.