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Defendant Acquitted After Retrial Not Entitled To Compensation From State

Posted on Wednesday, March 4, 2020

In this case seeking relief under the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act, the Michigan Supreme Court declined to hear the plaintiff’s appeal, thereby affirming that the plaintiff was not entitled to compensation for the nine years he spent in prison before being acquitted of sexual assault.

A Kent County jury convicted the plaintiff, Dennis Tomasik, of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in 2007. The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed Tomasik’s conviction in 2014.

In 2015, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed in part the Court of Appeals decision and remanded Tomasik’s case for a new trial, finding the trial court should not have allowed into evidence a recording of Tomasik’s police interrogation. After a retrial, Tomasik was acquitted of all charges.

Tomasik then filed suit against the State of Michigan, seeking relief under the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act (WICA) for the nearly nine years he spent in prison. The Michigan Court of Claims denied Tomasik’s claim, ruling that he did not satisfy the conditions for relief under the WICA (MCL 691.1755) because the Supreme Court had granted him a new trial on grounds other than new evidence.

Tomasik appealed the Court of Claims decision and, in an April 2019 published opinion, the Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of relief. According to the Court of Appeals in Tomasik v State of Michigan (Docket No. 343453), pleading a WICA case differs from winning one because, to obtain relief, the exonerated individual must prove, among other things, that the conviction was reversed or vacated on the basis of new evidence. Because Tomasik could not show that his reversal was based on new evidence, the Court of Appeals found that Tomasik’s claim for relief was properly dismissed.

Tomasik appealed. In a January 17, 2020 order, the Michigan Supreme Court denied his application for leave, thereby letting the Court of Appeals decision stand.

Court of Appeals Ruling

In spring 2019, the Court of Appeals held that Tomasik was not eligible for compensation under WICA because the Supreme Court’s 2015 reversal was not based on new evidence.

“On appeal, plaintiff argues that the Court of Claims erred in dismissing his action in three separate ways,” the Court of Appeals wrote in its opinion. “First, the Court of Claims misread the WICA to require that a plaintiff prove by clear and convincing evidence that, among other things, the conviction was reversed or vacated based on ‘new evidence,’ as that term is defined in the act. As plaintiff reads the act, it is enough to show that new evidence ultimately resulted in a finding of not guilty, and the earlier reversal or vacation of the prior conviction can be on a basis other than new evidence. Second, even if the Court of Claims read the act correctly, plaintiff argues that his convictions were, in fact, reversed based on new evidence, and it is a misreading of the Supreme Court’s order to conclude otherwise. Third and finally, plaintiff asserts that if there is question about what the Supreme Court’s order meant, then he should be allowed to take discovery on the matter, including deposing Justices and judicial staff.”

According to the Court of Appeals, these arguments did not have merit.

Regarding the requirements for WICA compensation, the Court of Appeals said that although Tomasik “certainly fit[]” within the set of individuals wrongfully imprisoned for crimes, “not all exonerated individuals are eligible for compensation” under the WICA. Whether Tomasik came within the parameters of those eligible for compensation depended on the meaning of §5(1)(c) of WICA, the Court of Appeals explained. That subsection says: “New evidence demonstrates that the plaintiff did not perpetrate the crime and was not an accomplice or accessory to the acts that were the basis of the conviction, results in the reversal or vacation of the charges in the judgment of conviction or a gubernatorial pardon, and results in either dismissal of all of the charges or a finding of not guilty on all of the charges on retrial.”

The Court of Appeals explained that §5(1)(c) requires an exonerated individual to prove the following: 1) new evidence shows the individual did not commit the crime or participate as an accomplice or accessory; 2) new evidence results in the reversal or vacation of the charges in the judgment of conviction or a gubernatorial pardon; and 3) new evidence results in dismissal of the charges or a finding of not guilty after retrial.

Here, Tomasik argued that an ambiguity existed when comparing the language of WICA §5 to WICA §4, which is the section that sets forth the pleading requirements to initiate an action for compensation. “Specifically, plaintiff argues that the two subdivisions cannot be reconciled, this creates an irreconcilable ambiguity, and because the WICA is intended to compensate those exonerated at trial, any ambiguity should inure to the benefit of exonerated individuals, not the state. In plaintiff’s eyes, to obtain relief under the WICA, the individual must show only that ‘the new evidence must have resulted in a reversal or vacation of the judgment of conviction, or dismissal of the charges or a finding of not guilty or gubernatorial pardon.’ We need not reach the equities of what should inure to whom, as there is no ambiguity in the statute in the first instance. … Section 4 sets forth requirements for pleading, while Section 5 sets forth requirements for relief.”

Alternatively, Tomasik argued that even if the WICA requires that reversal be based on new evidence rather than another reversible error, he still met that requirement. The Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that the Supreme Court’s 2015 order “plainly stated that a new trial was warranted because the ‘trial court abused its discretion by admitting the recording of the [plaintiff’s] interrogation.’ … Plaintiff simply cannot prove – let alone prove by clear and convincing evidence – that new evidence resulted in the reversal of his convictions.”

In addition to the foregoing arguments, Tomasik asked the Court of Appeals to remand the case for discovery. “Plaintiff maintains that discovery could confirm that the Supreme Court did, in fact, reverse plaintiff’s convictions based on new evidence, notwithstanding what the Supreme Court expressed in its written order,” the Court of Appeals observed. However, the Supreme Court’s 2015 order “plainly held that the Court would not address whether the trial court erred in denying plaintiff a second trial based on newly discovered evidence. No amount of discovery could alter or enlighten this written holding.”

The Court of Appeals concluded: “Pleading a case under the WICA is different than winning one. To obtain relief, an exonerated individual must prove, among other things, that the conviction was reversed or vacated on the basis of new evidence. Because plaintiff cannot show this, the Court of Claims appropriately granted summary disposition to the state of Michigan, and we affirm.”

Supreme Court Order

Tomasik appealed the Court of Appeals decision to the Supreme Court. In January 2020, the justices denied his application for leave.

Chief Justice Bridget M. McCormack concurred in the order but wrote separately “to highlight the troubling – and perhaps unforeseen by the Legislature – outcome in this case.” Justice Megan K. Cavanagh joined McCormack’s concurrence.

“In 2015, this Court reversed the plaintiff’s convictions for first-degree criminal sexual conduct and remanded for a new trial because the trial court had committed an evidentiary error by admitting a video recording of the plaintiff’s police interview and that error rose to the level of plain error,” McCormack wrote. “The plaintiff had also sought relief based on a claim of new evidence, but this Court did not address that claim because we granted relief on the evidentiary error. … After being acquitted by a jury following his new trial, the plaintiff sought compensation under the Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act (WICA), MCL 691.1751, et seq. The Court of Claims granted summary disposition to the state, and the Court of Appeals affirmed on the ground that the plaintiff’s convictions had not been reversed on the basis of new evidence under MCL 691.1755(1)(c).”

McCormack explained that, while she “tend[ed]” to agree that the language of the WICA did not entitle Tomasik to compensation, she questioned whether this result is consistent with the Michigan Legislature’s intent. “In enacting the WICA, the Legislature intended wrongly incarcerated individuals to seek compensation when their convictions are voided and they are exonerated of all charges on the basis of new evidence. If the sole basis for the plaintiff’s claim was that he is entitled to compensation because of the trial court’s evidentiary error, I would agree that the Legislature did not intend to provide for compensation under such circumstances.”

However, McCormack noted there was “more” to Tomasik’s case because he sought relief based on evidentiary error and new evidence. “Had he brought only the new-evidence questions to this Court, and not the other trial errors, he’d likely be eligible for WICA compensation,” McCormack wrote. “Yet because his trial was unfair for reasons in addition to that it did not include the new evidence, he’s out of luck? Under these unique circumstances, I encourage the Legislature to consider whether it intended to exclude individuals such as the plaintiff – call them ‘new evidence plus-ers’ – from the WICA.”

Click here to watch Episode 2 of “In the Name of the Law” on WLAJ ABC 53, where the attorneys at Chartier & Nyamfukudza, PLC, who represent Tomasik, discuss the case.

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