In 1994, Joseph Frey was wrongly convicted of sexual assault and kidnapping. He was sentenced to 102 years in prison. 

Everyone knew the semen stains found on the victim’s bed were not his, Professor Keith Findley, co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, said, but the state continued to claim that another person must have deposited them at some other time during an act of consensual sex.

Frey’s case is one of many under consideration by the Wisconsin Innocence Project, a University of Wisconsin Law School project dedicated to investigating and litigating wrongful convictions. 

With assistance from federal grants, the project was able to do additional DNA testing on Frey’s case and prove Frey’s innocence by finding a DNA match with another convicted sex offender, Findley said.

The Wisconsin Innocence Project focuses on cases which have claims of actual innocence, Byron Lichstein, University of Wisconsin professor and co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, said.

The work the project does is not just about proving innocence, Lichstein said, it is also about making sure the right guilty person is convicted.

The DNA testing that exonerated Frey also identified the real offender, who had subsequently abused two young girls and had since died, Findley said.

“There is nothing like the feeling of walking someone out of prison who didn’t commit the crime and spent years in prison for something they didn’t do,” Lichstein said. “That feeling of being able to prove innocence and helping someone in that way is a life changing experience to be able to work on a case like that.” 

Despite help from the project, however, Findley said freedom from prison does not translate to a simpler life.

Although Frey got out of prison, no safety net existed for him and he had no place to live and very little money, Findley said, adding WIP took him to a big box store to buy basics like food, toothpaste and shampoo.

Today, Findley said Frey is a positive and upbeat man who is resourceful and has been living in a homeless shelter since his exoneration.

For Forest Shomberg, another exonoree who was convicted of attempted rape in 2002, finding positivity in post-prison life proved to be much more difficult, Findley said. Shomberg, who was denied compensation for his wrongful conviction by the State Claims Board, found struggle with addiction, unemployment and homelessness. Shomberg died of drug overdose on Aug. 18, he said.

“We try to help people when they get out, but people have to understand we’re lawyers and law students, not social workers,” Findley said. “We don’t have the expertise or the resources to provide the support people need.” 

According to Findley, Wisconsin’s compensation statute is “inadequate,” noting the project is working on legislation to provide a support system for exonerees that will include not just financial compensation but also mental health counseling, drug and alcohol treatment, housing assistance and health care and educational assistance.

Findley said he hopes the legislation will be passed this fall.

“This is the kind of thing that gets bipartisan support because everyone recognizes the injustice when the state takes away the liberty of an innocent person and everyone recognizes that the state then has an obligation to help them get their lives back together,” Findley said.