Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle said Friday he would be willing to raise the $25,000 cap on state compensation for wrongfully convicted people, after the release of a man who spent 18 years in prison for a rape and attempted murder he didn't commit.
"I don't know when the law was last looked at, last adjusted, but I think clearly it's something that deserves to be looked at," Doyle said in Madison. "I guess I'm like everybody else, very saddened that a person spent years in prison for a wrongful conviction."
Steven Avery, 43, of rural Two Rivers, walked out of the Stanley Correction Institution in northwest Wisconsin Thursday, thanks to a law school group that pushed for the DNA analysis that proved his innocence.
Under a state law that provides compensation for innocent convicts, Avery could petition the state Claims Board for up to $5,000 for each year he was wrongly imprisoned, not to exceed $25,000.
Avery's older brother, Chuck Avery of Two Rivers, said the family would seek the money. "Twenty-five thousand dollars is nothing," the brother said. "He lost everything. He lost his wife, his kids."
Steven Avery, the father of five now grown children, was sentenced to 32 years in prison in 1985 on charges of first-degree sexual assault, attempted murder and false imprisonment stemming from an attack on a 36-year-old woman jogger near Two Rivers.
The same Manitowoc County judge who sentenced Avery ruled Wednesday that the new DNA evidence gathered from a pubic hair found on the victim proved Avery was innocent and linked the crime to another man serving a 60-year sentence for a 1995 sexual assault and kidnapping in Brown County.
Avery's exoneration is the first under Wisconsin's DNA-testing law adopted in 2001, according to the state attorney general's office. The law requires that biological evidence be preserved as long as anyone remains in custody and provides a right to post-conviction DNA testing.
Keith Findley, co-director for the Wisconsin Innocence Project, which worked on Avery's case for two years, said Avery is owed far more than $25,000 for his ordeal.
"No reasonable person would consider it a fair deal to receive $25,000 for 18 years imprisonment and all its attendant stigma and loss," Findley said. "That sum is woefully inadequate. It is disgraceful."
Doyle said he wasn't sure what the reasonable compensation should be to help someone like Avery get going in life again.
"I'm sure if you went to Mr. Avery and asked if there was any dollar figure that could compensate, there isn't," Doyle said.
According to John Pray, another attorney with the Innocence Project, a man in Texas who was wrongfully imprisoned for 12 years recently reached a settlement for $9 million in compensation from a city government there.
If the Wisconsin Claims Board decides the amount it's permitted to award under the law is not adequate, it can submit a report to the Legislature with the amount the board believes is sufficient.
State Rep. Frank Lasee, R-Bellevue, represents the Two Rivers area where Avery now lives. Lasee said Friday the government certainly owes Avery something but he doesn't know what would be fair and reasonable.
"It would be real nice to give the guy lots and lots of money. But ultimately, how do you pay for it?" Lasee said. "The fact is we do limit the liability of the government on a whole variety of issues."
The lawmaker said he would need to think more about whether to champion Avery's cause in the Legislature for receiving more than $25,000.
"We can't right all the wrongs in the world. Where does it end?" Lasee asked. "Sometimes things don't work quite right for an individual and that's a tragedy."
The Wisconsin Innocence Project also called for the state Justice Department to investigate whether errors could have been made in Avery's case that led to the wrongful conviction, Pray said.
Specifically, the procedures that the Manitowoc County Sheriff's Department used in a lineup in which the assault victim picked out Avery as the assailant need to be looked at in great detail, Pray said.
"What kind of feedback did the victim get (from police) in her identification?" Pray asked.
The state probe should also explore whether there were other alternative suspects that investigators failed to look at because they "may have latched onto Steve at a relatively early date," Pray said.
Pray said the Innocence Project is investigating about 30 other cases, about half of them in Wisconsin, to explore whether prison inmates were wrongly convicted.