LANSING, Mich. — There are two bills sitting on Governor Snyder’s desk that would help the wrongfully convicted start their lives over, but one of the men who would be affected by the legislation says it won't do him much good.
“It’s not going to improve my life too much,” said Donya Davis when FOX 17’s Cassandra Arsenault sat down with him for the second time since he’s been released.
The first bill is Senate Bill 291 which would provide $50,000 per year for time served by the wrongfully convicted. The second bill is House Bill 5815 that is basically a services bill for individuals that had a conviction overturned for any reason. Those individuals, like parolees, who would able to take advantage of housing, food, clothing and other services for up to two years.
Ten years ago - in April 2006 - a 23-year-old black woman was confronted by a black man as she was moving boxes from her apartment after there was a fire in Wayne County. The man ordered her into her apartment at gunpoint. He raped her in her kitchen and then locked her in the basement pantry. The victim was able to eventually break out of the pantry and call 911.
The victim’s description was that her attacker was 5'9" tall, dark complexion, and Afro hairstyle. She could not remember if he had facial hair or not.
Only six days later, a woman called police and implicated then 28-year-old Donya Davis in the crime. The police put his photograph into a lineup and the victim identified him as her attacker. Despite Davis not matching the description as he is 6'1", medium complexion, has close-cropped hair, and a thin mustache, he was picked out in the line-up anyway.
A DNA test on skin cells from the victim’s thighs developed a partial male profile that excluded Davis. A mistrial was declared when the jury didn’t reach a unanimous verdict. It was then that Davis went to a trial a second time - a bench trial - in October 2007. The judge convicted Davis of rape, carjacking, and use of a firearm by a convicted felon. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
He was released a few years ago, but things have not been going so well since FOX 17 last spoke with him in February. Even though DNA evidence helped overturn his conviction, it still shows up on his record every time he gets a background check for a job.
His 8-year-old son Christian hadn’t been born yet when Davis went to jail.
“For a man, it’s not physically damaging. It’s just mentally and emotionally damaging for a man that you can’t take care of your children. That’s something you have to sleep on, and you have to wake up to it. And in between you have to prepare yourself to fight,” said Davis.
Davis was put away for 7 years. During that time, Christian and his 11 siblings were taken care of by Davis' mother, Denise Larry. She fought every single day to get him out of jail.
“For the first time in my life, I could not help my son,” said Denise.
The day he was released was something Denise and Christian had been waiting on for as long as they could remember.
“It was probably the best moment in my life. It was probably better than giving birth,” said Denise.
In that sense, it was like birth. Both of them starting all over again from square one, but this time the odds were against them.
“I thought when he came home, everything would be ok and magically just be wonderful,” said Larry.
Davis told FOX 17 News that life as a free man has been worse than his last two years sitting in a jail cell.
“These last two years were worse than my last two years in prison. I accomplished so much in prison and had such a great mentality because I knew I had to be strong and I knew I was fighting for something. And I don’t have anything to fight with or fight for now,” said Davis.
Davis has been looking for a job for 2 years now. He hasn’t had any luck, which is frustrating. He has skills as a chef, and trained as a paralegal before he went to jail.
“I can’t get a job in Michigan because the crime they accuse me keeps showing up that I have been convicted every job I go through. It’s like they are laughing at me because you know all it takes is a click of a computer button to clear my record but you [the state] won’t do it,” said Davis.
In Michigan, exonerees have no compensation law. They don’t get any services from the state after being released from jail. And unlike convicted murders - who get help from the state after release - Davis said all he was handed was a bag of condoms, while he saw convicted murderers get transition training, money for transportation to where they are going, vouchers for food and clothing, and help with a place to live and to find a job.
“Had I been convicted and came home I would have had food stamps, clothing vouchers, and housing vouchers, but because they made a mistake I get the worse treatment of all,” said Davis.
Marla Mitchell-Cichon, a lawyer and professor at The Innocence Project of Cooley Law School, helped free Davis. They maintain a close relationship. Also, she helped work and advocate for the legislation sitting on Governor Snyder’s desk. She has worked on it for the last 14 years, and it will be the first time a compensation law has ever been introduced to Michigan.
“I don’t want to seem ungrateful or angry because I am not. But the bill is not going to help me on bit. I am still going to be in debt,” said Davis.
Mitchell- Cichon l does believe this is a step in the right direction, and will now be able to give her clients this option for some financial relief, but she does not sugar-coat the fact that regardless exonerees will have trouble finding work.
“Even if Donya’s record would be clear, he would have to explain to an employer why didn’t you work between this time frame of seven years? He’s had jobs and calls me and asks ‘how did they find this?’ Often times it has been on a private website. There’s nothing I can do about that. The time and effort that is required to clear someone’s record or his name, it’s a very high hurdle. Once something is made public it’s hard to make it go away,” said Cichon-Mitchell.
Davis said he’s been working at least over a dozen different jobs, and once they offer to hire him full time, he knows it will be short-lived.
“It’s an embarrassment when someone looks you in the face and says, ‘hey man you didn’t tell me you raped women, burned down some places, and robbed some banks?’ This a surprise to an employer to find out such a bad news. And I just sit there not trying to look embarrassed and trying to explain it knowing it doesn’t matter what I explain,” said Davis.
As for the $350,000 he could potentially get from the state if this bill passes, Davis says it won't help much, as he's indebted to his mother for supporting his children while he was incarcerated plus a quarter of a million dollars in legal fees. And after all that, will still have trouble landing a job, as his conviction will still show up on his record.
Even so, Davis is one of the lucky ones. Most don’t have a family to lean on when they get out of jail.
“Can you imagine literally getting sent out of county jail and all they give you is a bag of condoms? That’s it,” said Davis.
2015 saw the highest number of exonerations in the United States ever. The Cooley Innocence Project is currently getting ready for court for 15 wrongly convicted cases, and screening 200 more.
“Our society is not equipped to deal with the challenges on every level: financially and emotionally,” said Mitchell-Cichon.
To Mitchell-Cichon knowledge there are no organizations in Michigan helping those who have been wrongly accused and facing the challenge of starting life again with a record.
“It’s not the money the money cannot repair the damage that has been done to our family,” said Larry.
Davis says that even if the legislation passes, he will still be unemployed and homeless as he will give all that money to his mom to try to dig her out of debt.
“I didn’t even ask for free money. I didn’t care about the bill. I just wanted them to at least let me start off even as everyone else. I don’t even have an even start. I am actually at a default now from the rest of society,” said Davis.
Davis knows that a fighting chance might not be in his future, but he fights anyway hoping he can prove his worth to his children.
The governor has 14 days to sign or veto the bill.
If you are business owner willing to help Davis with employment e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org