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Split ruling turns on meaning of ‘exoneration’

Laura Brown//May 30, 2023

Illustration of a magnifying glass in front of a slightly open green folder with the word "EXONERATION" on it image

Split ruling turns on meaning of ‘exoneration’

Laura Brown//May 30, 2023

In a split decision, the Minnesota Supreme Court found that a Minnesotan was ineligible to submit a petition seeking compensation under Minnesota’s Incarceration and Exoneration Remedies Act. In Back v. State, filed May 24, a divided court determined that the individual failed to show she was exonerated and was therefore ineligible for any compensation.

Danna Back asked one of her former boyfriends to drive her to an individual’s house, aware that her ex-boyfriend and the individual had been in altercations where the ex-boyfriend had threatened to use a gun. Upon arriving at the residence, Back and the individual argued. The ex-boyfriend intervened and fatally shot the individual. Back was convicted by a jury of second-degree manslaughter in 2009.

Second-degree manslaughter requires a person to cause death by “culpable negligence.” Back appealed, and the court reversed. It found that the state did not prove the existence of a special relationship between Back and either the shooter or the victim. Therefore, Back had no duty to either control the shooter or protect the victim and could not be found negligent.

In 2019, Back filed a petition for an order declaring her eligible for compensation based on exoneration. Minnesota’s Incarceration and Exoneration Remedies Act requires individuals petitioning for compensation to show that a court “vacated, reversed, or set aside a judgment of conviction on grounds consistent with innocence” as well as “any evidence of factual innocence.”

The district court determined that Back was exonerated. The state appealed, arguing that Back’s conviction was a result of application of existing law rather than clarification of law. As a result, it claimed that Back should not be exonerated under the statute. The Court of Appeals also held that Back was exonerated within the meaning of the statute. However, it also held that the district court had the ability to deny petitions for exonerated petitioners.

The central question before the court was whether Back was “exonerated” under the language of the statute. Much of the debate centered on a 2014 case where Vaundell Kingbird was convicted of illegal possession of a firearm as a felon. Kingbird had an air-powered BB gun, which the court determined did not count as a firearm after the conviction was finalized. The conviction was vacated. Kingbird petitioned the court to order him eligible for compensation based on exoneration. However, the court found that Kingbird was ineligible because he had not shown any evidence of factual evidence and was, therefore, not “exonerated.”

Back argued that her case differed from Kingbird’s because while his conduct was viewed as criminal at the time he committed the conduct, her conduct was never viewed as criminal under the law. “Back’s conviction was reversed because a crime was not committed. The facts did not constitute a crime,” argued Joseph Gangi, attorney at Farrish Johnson Law Office, Chtd., who represented Back.

Back also maintained that her case was distinct from Kingbird’s because there was insufficient evidence to support her conviction and the direct review of her case was based on facts. “The relevant phrase here is ‘any evidence of factual innocence,’” Gangi asserted. “This is a very minimal threshold showing. There is no need to prove factual innocence at this point. There only needs to be any evidence of factual innocence.” Gangi contended that the insufficient evidence was “more than sufficient to meet this minimal threshold burden.”

“This case comes down to the definition of ‘factual innocence,’” Brittany Lawonn, senior assistant Hennepin County attorney, asserted. “Factual innocence means that a legal clarification in the law does not amount to the individual being innocent if the facts remain unchanged.”

“Ms. Back is not exonerated,” Lawonn declared.

The court agreed with the state. It found that Back’s claim of innocence was not restricted to or based on facts but instead turned on an issue of legal significance. Without showing factual innocence, the court maintained that Back was not exonerated.

Chief Justice Gildea, along with Justices Chutich and Moore, dissented.

“We reversed Back’s conviction because there was no evidence that she owed a duty of care to the shooter or the victim,” Gildea wrote. “In other words, Back was factually innocent of the charged crime, and she was exonerated under section 590.11.”

However, the dissent did not agree with Back that she was eligible for automatic compensation, maintaining that it only occurred if the state agreed and joined the petition.

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