In 1970, Kenneth Wyniemko wore number 12 as a Detroit Junior Red Wing hockey player. Today, the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project and Kenneth Wyniemko are celebrating the 12th year of Ken’s freedom. Wyniemko was exonerated after DNA testing proved he was innocent.
Wyniemko spent nine years in prison for criminal sexual conduct, breaking and entering and armed robbery-crimes he didn’t commit. Through the efforts of the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project and panel attorney Gail Pamukov, Mr. Wyniemko was released from prison on June 17, 2003.
Mr. Wyniemko did not fit the victim’s description of the perpetrator and there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Both the police and prosecutor contributed to the wrongful conviction by eliciting a false statement from a jail inmate. Five years after his exoneration, the true perpetrator, Craig Gonser, was identified through the Combined Offender Database System (CODIS). Tragically, Gonser could not be prosecuted because the statute of limitations had run. Since then, the time limitation has been amended to prevent this injustice (MCL 767(3)(b). But another injustice continues as Michigan remains one of 20 states that do not provide compensation for those who have been wrongfully convicted.
This week Wyniemko spent his birthday, June 15, preparing to testify before the House Criminal Justice Committee in support of a compensation law that would provide $60,000 a year to Michigan’s wrongfully convicted. But it wasn’t all work and no play. WMU-Cooley Innocence Project staff and students celebrated Ken’s birthday with dinner, balloons and cake. It was a casual, fun event, but the gravity of the needed reforms was not lost in the celebration. Ken encouraged Cooley students, “I’m so glad to see young people pick up the torch for the next generation. We all want a system that works.”
On June 16, Ken and fellow exoneree, Julie Baumer, testified on behalf of Michigan exonerees in support of proposed House Bill 4536. “The most important thing is for people to get justice that’s long overdue,” Wyniemko said. According to the National Registry of Exonerations there have been 55 exonerations in Michigan since 1989. These individuals receive no support or services from the state once they are released. The proposed law would be a step in the right direction.
Mr. Wyniemko’s case illustrates glaring shortcomings in our criminal justice system—the inherit problems with eyewitness identification, jailhouse snitches, wrongful confessions, inadequate legal representation, police and prosecutorial misconduct—all present in his case. And that is why he is a tireless advocate to change the system.
(Kenneth Wyniemko’s case will be chronicled in his forthcoming book, Deliberate Injustice.)
The author, Marla Mitchell-Cichon, is the director of WMU-Cooley Law School’s Innocence Project. Professor Mitchell-Cichon has extensive practice experience in criminal and poverty law. Her litigation experience includes practicing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the Ohio Supreme Court, and trial courts in both Ohio and Michigan. She joined WMU-Cooley Law School in July 1995 and also teaches in the Sixty Plus, Inc., Elderlaw Clinic and Professional Responsibility.