Exonerated man, attorney discuss legal reform
November 13, 2006 —
"People can't be that...naive - I don't want to say ignorant - to believe that I was the only innocent person convicted in the system."
These are the words of Kenneth Wyniemko, a man exonerated from prison after serving nine years for a crime he did not commit. He and attorney Gail Pamukov spoke last Tuesday evening in the Malcolm Field Theatre for Performing Arts about the process of his conviction, his time in prison, and his exoneration.
In the early morning hours of an April day in 1994, a man in the Detroit metropolitan area wearing a ski-mask entered a woman's home, covered her head with her own underwear, and tied a blindfold around her head.
On July 9, 1994, Wyniemko was convicted of 15 counts of sexual assault, one count of armed robbery, and one count of breaking and entering with regards to the woman's horrible ordeal. He was sentenced to 40-60 years in prison. Nearly nine years later - on June 17, 2003, Wyniemko was released from prison an innocent man.
As of today, there have been 187 DNA exonerates in the United Sates. Wyniemko was the 129th and only the second in Michigan.
There are more than 2.1 million individuals in prison across the nation. The most conservative estimates suggest that 5 percent of those are innocent, whereas more liberal estimates are between 10 and 15 percent - which means there could be as many as 30,000 wrongly convicted individuals in prison today.
In police reports, the victim in Wyniemko's case described her attacker as in his early to mid-twenties, weighing more than 200 pounds, and at a height of over six foot.
She also helped them create a composite sketch from her few glimpses of the man through the openings in the underwear and blindfold that police labeled as 60 percent accurate - though she said she had barely seen the man and the room was dark. Wyniemko, when she chose him from a lineup, was 43 years old, weighed less than 200 pounds and was 5'11".
Gail Pamukov was the attorney that took on Wyniemko's case in May of 2002 through her involvement in the Innocence Project. The project was created by Barry Scheck and Peter Newfeld as an organization devoted to exonerating the wrongly accused from prison.
"The ideology behind the judicial system is to seek truth," Pamukov said, "and those ideals have gotten lost somewhere along the way."
A jailhouse snitch also testified against Wyniemko in the case - saying that Wyniemko admitted he committed the crime. It was later revealed that the man was coerced by the police and prosecutor. He was offered only a one year jail sentence instead of a life sentence for a repeat felony if he testified against Wyniemko.
Michigan is currently ranked 49th in the nation for its level of indigent council offered, which is defense given to defendants who cannot afford legal council.
Defendants are given only between $3,000 and $5,000 to pay for the council services, which includes investigation services. Pamukov noted that a sexual assault case with more than five counts often costs more than $100,000 - if proper investigation is to be done.
It took Wyniemko nearly eight years to get through the appeals process before he was able to file for DNA testing.
In 1999, a reporter for the Detroit Free Press - Kim North Shine - took an interest in Wyniemko's case and helped him find ways to fight through the appeals process, which is necessary before you can file for DNA testing.
Pamukov filed Wyniemko's case in November of 2002. After it was finally approved, it took months to gather the biological evidence from the case.
"Preservation of biological evidence is a huge issue in many cases," Pamukov said, "because it was often lost or discarded before 1992 - when it was a requirement to keep on file."
When the testing was done, Wyniemko was released within mere days, as it showed there was absolutely no connection to him and the crime.
"Without DNA testing, I'd still be in prison and would have died there," Wyniemko noted.
When he was released, however, Wyniemko quickly realized the struggles he faced. He had no money and he had no means of getting a job. Wyniemko had also become estranged from his family, and his father had died while he was in prison.
He said that if it weren't for the friends he had made through his long process of exoneration, he would have ultimately had nowhere to go.
"People ask me if I hate police for what they've done to me," Wyniemko said, "and I tell them I don't. I think most officers are doing a good and necessary job, and you can't blame all of them based on the actions of a few."
Wyniemko is currently working on a bill that will offer compensation for those exonerated from prison.
The bill, House Bill 559, is slated to head to the state legislature soon, possibly within the next few months.
In addition, Pamukov was recently awarded the Champion of Justice Award for the state of Michigan.
Before concluding the discussion, Wyniemko added one more piece of advice.
"Whatever field of study you go into," he said, "I hope that...what Gail has said and what I've said stays with you and makes you realize the failures of the system.”