The Wisconsin State Journal Susan Lampert Smith Column: State Fails Wrongly Imprisoned Man

By Susan Lampert Smith
Wisconsin State Journal
January 27, 2008

Jan. 27--David Sanders is a nicer person than most of us.

Most of us would want revenge for the 3-year nightmare of wrongful conviction that put him more than $40,000 in debt.

Sanders ' goals are more modest.

"I just want to get my rent paid, " Sanders said Friday. "I 'm not trying to make money off the state of Wisconsin or anyone else. I just want to forget about this whole thing. "

But given Wisconsin 's outdated compensation laws, it 's unclear if he 'll get enough money to keep himself out of bankruptcy.

Back in November 2004, when police pulled him out of bed in Louisville and accused him of molesting a child years earlier in Milwaukee, Sanders had perfect credit. He also had a teaching job in the public schools, a job as a tutor, and one playing the organ in church. He lost all of those, because, as Shane Siemers of the Wisconsin Innocence Project said, "there 's pretty much nothing worse you can do to a teacher than accuse them of child molesting. "

Sanders, a former Catholic brother, was convicted of being the "Brother David " who molested a Milwaukee boy.

But last June, a miracle occurred.

The victim 's grandmother found a letter indicating that another Brother David committed the crime. Police interviewed David Nickerson, who confessed.

On June 22, Sanders was called from his cell at Dodge Correctional Institution and taken to a Milwaukee County courtroom where his new lawyer, Byron Lichstein of the Innocence Project, whispered the incredible news. Sanders cried.

After the hearing, he shook hands with the judge who originally sentenced him to 15 years.

Sanders was left in Milwaukee -- a city where he hadn 't lived for a decade -- with no money and no way to get home. Lichstein gave him $300 and put him up in a motel until a friend could drive up from Louisville.

The state claims board seems likely to at least pay the $18,000 in attorney bills for Sanders ' first attorney. But under limits set in 1980, Sanders is entitled to a maximum of $5,000 for the eight months he was wrongly imprisoned.

Lichstein said Wisconsin ranks dead last among states that compensate people wrongly imprisoned. Wisconsin awards $5,000 a year, with a total cap of $25,000. By contrast, Alabama allows up to $50,000 per year in prison with no cap. Texas has raised its total cap to $500,000.

And states such as Virginia offer immediate financial assistance of up to $15,000 for those newly released.

Ironically, Sanders would have received more state services if he had committed the crime and was released on parole.

And even more ironically, Milwaukee County still hasn 't charged the other Brother David.

With more people being exonerated by DNA evidence, there are likely to be more people such as David Sanders being put out in the cold, their lives destroyed.

Wisconsin needs to do better by these people.

This isn 't about coddling criminals, it 's about a nightmare that could happen to you, too.


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