No one was more surprised than Forest Shomberg when he was suddenly released from the Dane County Jail after serving six years for a wrongful conviction for sexual assault.
The Wisconsin Innocence Project presented evidence including DNA results that the Madison man was the victim of mistaken identity, but Shomberg was told not to get his hopes up.
When Judge Patrick Fiedler overturned his own 2003 verdict on Nov. 13, 2009, Shomberg was wearing borrowed clothes as he stepped into the lobby of the Public Safety Building to greet his longtime girlfriend and his attorney, Byron Lichstein, along with the law students who worked on his case.
For the wrongfully convicted, those signature moments — the tearful reunion with loved ones outside prison — can be fleeting. Unlike actual offenders, who must report regularly to a parole officer and receive help finding housing and a job, innocent people sprung from prison are released into a vacuum.
For Shomberg, the sudden change left him not euphoric but a “nervous wreck” and “terrified of my own shadow.”
Now Shomberg is back in prison, serving time for an incident in May in which he fired a gun from the porch of his East Side home in an aborted suicide attempt.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb sentenced Shomberg, 47, to a year in prison, part of which can be served in a halfway house. He faced as much as 6½ years behind bars.
Often traumatized by their unjust incarceration and freed from the discipline and routine of prison life, many wrongfully convicted struggle in ways that make it difficult to enjoy their liberty and find success. They can suffer physical and psychological problems and difficulty securing work.
Steven Avery was arrested for the murder of Teresa Halbach just two years after his release. Avery spent 18 years in prison for a rape in Manitowoc County he did not commit. After his release, Avery lived for a time in an ice shanty after a fallout with family members. He now is serving a life sentence for Halbach’s murder.
Former Augusta Police Officer Evan Zimmermann was released in 2005 after his Eau Claire County murder conviction was reversed and his retrial dropped. He suffered a stroke in prison and after his release was hobbled by depression, agoraphobia and fear of being wrongfully convicted again. He died of cancer in 2007 at age 61.
“The sad irony is that if you’re guilty of a crime, the state provides a lot more support upon release from prison than if you’re innocent,” said Keith Findley, co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project. “If you’re innocent, you’re just set free.”
Findley is working with state Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, on legislation that would provide “meaningful relief to help innocent people get back on their feet.”
Pocan said the measure — co-sponsored by Rep. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay — would set compensation for wrongful conviction at $50,000 per year in prison, up from $5,000 per year now. It also would mandate that exonerees receive health insurance, services and living expenses to help them adjust to life outside of prison; that wrongful convictions be expunged from electronic court records; and that exonerees be repaid for attorneys’ fees and restitution.
The benefits would be retroactive to those released since Jan. 1, 2006.
Imprisoning the innocent, Pocan said, “can make people criminals who weren’t that to begin with.”
Shomberg was no stranger to trouble when he was arrested after a UW-Madison student was pulled from State Street and violently groped. He had a lengthy criminal record for theft and burglary. Much of the crime, he said, was to pay for his drug addiction.
The problems that Shomberg had before his arrest — psychological trauma from childhood sexual assault and the tendency to abuse drugs and alcohol — continued to dog him after his release. Added to that was grief for the stepfather who died while he was locked up — a stint that included three years at the former Supermax prison in Boscobel.
In a letter to Crabb, Shomberg said while at the facility he would lie on the concrete floor “rocking back and forth with my blankets and towel wrapped around my head to block out the noise.”
After his release, the reunion with his girlfriend quickly soured as arguments erupted between the two of them and between his girlfriend, mother and grandmother — “the three most important people in my life.”
Their long-delayed wedding was canceled, and Shomberg returned to his old addictions. On May 23 of this year, Shomberg sat on the porch of his home on Williamson Street and contemplated suicide. When the gun jammed, Shomberg, who was drunk and high on opiates and methadone, tested it by firing into the front yard.
“The sheer force of it going off sobered me up and brought me to my senses,” he said in a letter to Crabb.
But by then, police were on the way. And Shomberg was facing more years in prison because his previous felony convictions made it illegal for him to have a gun.
Had Shomberg served the full sentence on his wrongful conviction, he would have had a period of supervised release from prison that could have helped him better cope with freedom, said Mike Lieberman, the federal public defender who handled Shomberg’s case.
“He would have had a parole officer helping him (with his drug and alcohol problems), mental health and medical treatment,” Lieberman said. “He could’ve helped him find a job.”
Wisconsin provides no support, such as housing, education, counseling, employment or health care assistance for the wrongfully convicted, Findley said.
The state’s current cap of $5,000 for every year in prison, up to a maximum $25,000, is the lowest amount in the nation among states that offer compensation for wrongful conviction, Findley said.
One of those receiving the full amount is Rommain Steven Isham, a Minnesota man who spent 10 years in prison and another decade as a registered sex offender for a sexual assault in Douglas County he did not commit.
Isham, 53, finally was exonerated in 2010, years after the alleged victim recanted the claim. While in prison, Isham said he was beaten and raped. After his release, he said, no one would hire him.
Isham received $6.85 for every day he was imprisoned.
“Aside from the obvious lack of freedom and the nightmares of prison life,” Findley said, “wrongful conviction severs family relationships and ends friendships, the opportunities ... to create a family or share in raising children, and causes loss of homes and other possessions, income, employment and one’s good name.
“To go through all of that, especially for a crime you didn’t commit is inevitably destructive.”
— State Journal reporters George Hesselberg and Ed Treleven contributed to this report.