On April 30, 1994, a heinous crime — one that sounds more like it came from a Hollywood movie script than a quintessential suburban town — took place in Clinton Township, Mich.
As the story goes, a man broke into a house that night while the only person home was asleep. His face disguised by a nylon stocking, the intruder handcuffed the sleeping, 28-year-old woman’s hands behind her back, blindfolded her with her underwear and raped her multiple times over four hours. He ended the ordeal by ejaculating in the woman’s mouth. To eliminate the evidence, he forced her to wash down the semen with soda and then put her panties in her mouth to wash the semen from those, too.
Based on the woman’s testimony and a composite sketch she later admitted was only 60 percent accurate, Ken Wyniemko was convicted of that crime. And he served eight and a half years in prison for it.
But like all good, unbelievable crime stories, the police got the wrong guy. When state police re-examined the original evidence — including a leftover cigarette butt, the semen-stained nylons, scrapings from under the victim’s fingernails, the panties and the bed — they found that Wyniemko couldn’t have committed the crime. His DNA didn’t match any of the evidence, which instead pointed to another perpetrator who was later found. In 2003, Wyniemko was exonerated and later compensated $3.7 million in an out-of-court-settlement for the mistake.
All that was made possible, though, by a bill passed by Michigan’s legislature in 2000. That law allows convicted defendants like Wyniemko to petition to re-open their cases based on new DNA evidence if the evidence hadn’t been considered before and could lead to exoneration.
Since 2001, the legislation has lead to three exonerations in Michigan, including Wyniemko’s. Hundreds more prisoners are waiting to have their petitions considered by law clinics like the Innocence Project at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, which usually handle the most promising cases.
Those prisoners might be out of luck come January, though. On Jan. 1, Michigan’s law allowing post-conviction relief because of DNA evidence is set to expire.
Though efforts are underway to extend the deadline, there are no guarantees when it comes to Michigan’s legislature. In March, Michigan’s Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed an extension for that deadline, pushing it back to 2012. But, not surprisingly, the bill has stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, where it hasn’t made it out of committee.
By now, people shouldn’t need a lecture on the miracle that is DNA evidence. More than 220 people nationwide have been exonerated because of DNA evidence. Though recent discoveries have raised questions about this figure, the FBI estimates that the likelihood of two unrelated people sharing nine of 13 genetic markers is 1 in 113 billion. That’s pretty good odds if you match a criminal to the DNA at a crime scene — a fact that has made DNA evidence standard in criminal cases if prosecutors can get it.
If so many people agree that DNA evidence should be relied on in current criminal cases, why shouldn’t it be applied retroactively to those who didn’t get the opportunity during their original trial? The point of our criminal justice system is to convict the right people for the crimes they committed. That principle should apply anytime.
But when it comes to Republicans, it’s not really about justice or fairness. It’s about elections. And it’s about fear.
As Rep. Paul Condino (D-Southfield), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, told the Metro Times earlier this month, he is still hopeful this bill will pass. He just expects it to pass during the lame-duck session between November and December.
If you read between the lines, what he’s trying to say is that Republicans wouldn’t dare do something that could made them look soft on crime before Nov. 4. They are already going to get creamed, better to not forfeit an issue that could mitigate the damage.
What’s left is a common sense bill in peril because of some stubborn Republicans. But this isn’t about a bill. It’s about the dozens of potential prisoners it could affect — all those people convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.
Republicans should do them justice.
Gary Graca is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.