What Is Exoneration?

What Does Being Exonerated Really Mean?

Exoneration gives wrongfully convicted individuals a second chance at life. It is the legal act of absolving someone from blame in Minnesota. Exoneration refers to the court taking back a defendant’s criminal conviction, vindicating the defendant with the official absolution of a guilty verdict. Exoneration requires the reversal of a criminal conviction through a display of innocence, a flaw in the original judgment, or other legality. For many, however, exoneration unfortunately comes too late.

When the Justice System Fails

Take the case of Richard Phillips, for example, who spent 45 years in prison for a homicide he didn’t commit. At the age of 71, Phillips is finally returning to his family – to two children, who were two and four at the time of his arrest, who he has not heard from – after his exoneration in Detroit. Learning about exoneration and the rights of those wrongfully convicted in Minnesota can help future lawmakers and defendants avoid this issue. Here’s what to know about exoneration in the state of Minnesota – including a recent change to the law.

Minnesota’s Exoneration Laws

In Minnesota, anyone who believes the courts have wrongfully convicted him or her has the right to pursue exoneration. The process of exoneration is a lengthy one with no guarantees for the defendant. Defendants often do not have legal representation or the support of friends and family members – in many cases because everyone believes the person committed the crime. Sadly, the average length of time a person is in prison prior to exoneration is 14 years.

In this amount of time, the defendant can lose relationships, jobs, opportunities, assets, and invaluable years of his or her life. Exoneration can help an innocent defendant get past a wrongful conviction, but it unfortunately cannot replace the years the broken justice system took away. Minnesota lawmakers passed an act in 2014 in an effort to compensate wrongfully convicted individuals at least somewhat for their losses related to the wrongful conviction.

Minnesota’s act permitted exonerated persons to petition for compensation of up to $100,000 per year of imprisonment. Financial compensation doesn’t make up for lost time, but it can help defendants get back on their feet after years behind bars. In yet another blow to the wrongfully convicted, state courts recently ruled part of the compensation law unconstitutional, rolling back the rights of many exonerees.

New Changes to Minnesota Exoneration Law: 2017

On September 27, 2017, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled the state’s exoneration compensation law “unconstitutional.” The ruling made a large portion of the compensation law invalid based on a legal technicality. Under the old law, an exonerated individual may only pursue compensation if the prosecutor dismissed the charges after a conviction reversal. The Supreme Court ruled this section of the law unconstitutional.

The new law, however, does not simply eliminate the prosecutor-dismissal requirement – it excluded a class of people from seeking compensation altogether. Based on the ruling, exonerated people in the state of Minnesota with vacated or reversed convictions would no longer qualify for compensation. Only those who received charge dismissals or verdicts at new trials still qualify. Justice David Lillehaug called the distinction “utterly irrational” and stated that it significantly violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause by excluding an entire class of exonerated people.

The latest proposed law on the subject, House Bill 3677, aims to “fix” the Supreme Court’s ruling to make sure future exonerees can still qualify for compensation under Minnesota law. HB 3677 has already passed through an important committee and gone to the committee of Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance for review. People exonerated in Minnesota would once again be able to seek compensation for time spent in prison while wrongfully convicted if the new law passes.

Contact An Attorney

If you or someone you know has been haunted by their criminal past and is considering expungement or considering pursuing exoneration for their convicted crimes, call (507) 344-8888 to receive a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney.