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What constitutes ‘exoneration’? Minnesota court reverses compensation ruling for murder case ‘linchpin’

Courts in Minnesota are grappling with whether a woman convicted of manslaughter who later had that conviction overturned — though with a judge later describing her as a “linchpin” in the murder case — is eligible for compensation for the time she was in prison. (Depositphotos)

Courts in Minnesota are grappling with whether a woman convicted of manslaughter who later had that conviction overturned — though with a judge later describing her as a “linchpin” in the murder case — is eligible for compensation for the time she was in prison. (Depositphotos)

A Minnesota manslaughter case that has bounced back and forth from the trial court and two appellate courts has raised complex questions about the nature of exoneration – and when compensation is justly required.

Across the country, Maryland other states have experienced a reckoning in recent years over how to compensate wrongly incarcerated men and women who have later been found to be innocent.

But what about those cases where the question of guilt or innocence – or at least some degree of culpability – is subject to debate?

In Minnesota, the state’s  Court of Appeals has reversed a lower court’s finding that a woman convicted of manslaughter who later had that conviction overturned — though with a judge later describing her as a “linchpin” in the murder case — is eligible for compensation for the time she was in prison.

The appeals court on Monday remanded the case to Hennepin County District Court to determine whether the record and evidence supports a conclusion that Danna Rochelle Back is eligible for compensation under the Minnesota Imprisonment and Exoneration Remedies Act (MIERA). The appeals court did not express an opinion on what the outcome of that proceeding should be.

A Hennepin County jury had found Back guilty of second-degree manslaughter with culpable negligence in the January 2007 shooting death of her former boyfriend, Daniel Holliday, according to court records. Back had left Holliday to pursue a relationship with Nicholas Vincent Super. She insisted Super to give her a ride to Holliday’s house, where Super fatally shot Holliday in a confrontation that erupted during a New Year’s Eve party.

Super, convicted of second-degree intentional murder, is incarcerated in the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Rush City with an anticipated release date in July 2023.

The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office is happy with the appeals court’s ruling, according to Brittany D. Lawonn, an assistant county attorney. Hennepin County District Judge Kerry Meyer, Lawonn noted, had found Back eligible for compensation despite finding that Back had played a significant part in the underlying crime.

No ‘clean hands’

“This isn’t a case of factual innocence,” Lawonn said. “This murder wouldn’t have happened but for Miss Back’s involvement so it’s good that it’s going back to the District Court. The evidence of an individual’s conduct matters. Clean hands make a difference. This is not the type of case in which an individual should receive compensation. She did not have clean hands so our position is that excludes her from eligibility.”

The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office also is helping with the litigation of another MIERA case, Kingbird v. State of Minnesota, which the Minnesota Supreme Court is to review later this year.

The Court of Appeals in August found that Vaundell Duwayne Kingbird was not eligible for exoneration compensation after having his felon-in-possess-of-a-firearm conviction vacated. Kingbird petitioned for compensation based on his claim of exoneration. But the vacation of his 2010 conviction resulted from a change in the law rather than “any evidence of factual innocence,” the appeals court then concluded.

“Our position is that the Legislature passed the statute for people who are factually innocent not just someone who becomes innocent due to a change in the law or legal technicality,” Lawonn said.

Back’s attorney, Joseph Gangi, did not respond to requests for comment.

The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed Back’s conviction in 2009, finding insufficient evidence to establish that she owed no legal duty to Super or Holliday, according to records. By then, Back had served 32 months in prison and four months on supervised released.

At least $50K a year

Back petitioned for eligibility for compensation under MIERA. The statute provides an exonerated claimant at least $50,000 a year for each year of incarceration and at least $25,000 a year for each year of supervised release on top of economic damages including attorney fees and lost wages as well as reimbursement for medical expenses and damages for injuries or illness incurred as a result of incarceration.

Back’s ensuing pursuit of compensation “has a significant history before all three levels of the judicial branch and has resulted in a revamping” of MIERA by the Legislature, Court of Appeals Judge Randall J. Slieter wrote in Monday’s opinion, which he decided with Judge Matthew E. Johnson and Judge Carol Hooten. In the matter’s fourth iteration, the Minnesota Supreme Court determined that a portion of the law that provided Back with a remedy was unconstitutional, reversing an earlier appeals court ruling that determined that Back qualified as an exonerated person and prompting lawmakers to redefine “exonerated” in the MIERA statute.

After those amendments, Back petitioned again and won an order from Hennepin County District Judge Kerry Meyer that she is eligible to file a MIERA claim. The state appealed Meyer’s ruling, bringing the case, now known as Back V, back to the appeals court.

‘Linchpin’ to murder

Meyer, in an order last June, found that Back, by insisting that she go to Holliday’s home with Super, “was the linchpin that made the murder possible” and that Back “does not have clean hands in this case.” Meyer also found, however, that MIERA “does not explain what to do if the petitioner shows she did not personally commit a crime but she played a significant part in the crime that was committed.”

Meyer found “at odds” MIERA subdivisions 3 and 4 of the statute. Subdivision 3 addresses eligibility for compensation based on the petitioner’s establishment of innocence while subdivision 4 involves evidence to support or refute the petition.

That may include additional evidence from the petitioner or prosecutor, the court’s consideration of the petitioner’s acts that may have contributed to bringing about the conviction and the victim’s testimony on harm suffered as a result of the crime and recommendation on whether to grant the petition.

“I am making a specific finding that if this Court is meant to balance Petitioner’s acts and the other considerations in subdivision 4 against Petitioner’s ‘any showing of factual innocence’ she would not be entitled to compensation for any period before the conviction was reversed,” Meyer wrote in her order. “A jury, the District Court and the original Court of Appeals all agreed she was guilty of manslaughter in the second degree. They all viewed her as having at least a moral duty to Mr. Holliday and found her actions to have contributed to his death. Her actions did contribute to the crime that took his life, although she is not legally responsible for his death.

“Applying the actual wording of the statute, however, requires an order finding Petitioner is eligible for compensation under subdivision 3,” Meyer concluded. “She was exonerated and did not personally commit the crime for which she was incarcerated.”

The appeals court, however, found that the District Court mistakenly concluded that the language of the exoneration statute compelled her to conclude that Back is eligible for compensation despite making findings that would suggest that Back is not eligible.

That “misapprehension” led to the District Court’s failure to exercise its discretion to determine Back’s eligibility for compensation as an exonerated person, as the appeals court said MIERA subdivision 7 requires.