Wisconsin man wrongly convicted still hasn't found ultimate freedom

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- Imagine one day going from having all your needs taken care of, to having nothing -- no home, no health insurance and no clothes. That's what happened to Joe Frey -- and now, his struggle is putting the spotlight on a problem in Wisconsin that could lead to changes in state law.

Freedom, it was once said, is just another word for "nothing left to lose" -- but you don't have to tell that to Joe Frey.

"I have nothing.  That's not true.  I have me -- and my determination, and my tenacity," Frey said.

It all began in the dark of night, some 20 years ago. Deep in the archives of the Oshkosh Northwestern on the old microfilm, you'll find the beginnings of Frey's nightmare. A man had broken into the apartment of a UW-Oshkosh student, and raped her at knife-point.

"The public was in an outrage about it," Frey said.

For nearly three years, the case went unsolved, with no leads. Pressure on police and prosecutors mounted, and in 1994, Frey was charged.

Frey proclaimed his innocence, insisting he was never at the crime scene.

His trial was short, but his sentence was not.

"I was convicted. Given 102 years," Frey said.

Sent to prison for the rest of his life, Frey thought about ending it.

"All you're doing is existing from day to day," Frey said.

Existing in a six-by-eight foot cell, one thought kept Frey living -- that he could learn the criminal defense and prove his innocence. He spent hours reading law books.

"I had to learn law as best I could on my own. By no means am I a Perry Mason or anything like that, and I don't want to be.  I didn't try to be. I was just fighting for my life.  That's all.  That's all I was doing," Frey said.

For years, Frey attempted to get someone to reexamine the case, filing appeal after appeal, but each time, he was denied.

"When I finally exhausted that last avenue and the decision came back telling me I'm burnt up -- I have no where to go, this decision is final -- I can't even appeal it to the Supreme Court, it's like a death nail, but I'm sitting inside that casket with a hammer pounding it out the other way. The only resource I had was the Innocence Project," Frey said.

University of Wisconsin law professor Tricia Bushnell and her students with the Wisconsin Innocence Project agreed to look at the case. What they saw was the story of a life reflected back in mug shots and court filings. In those documents, they saw a questionable conviction -- a DNA test at the time of Frey's trial did not match evidence at the scene -- and should have cleared Frey.

"If it doesn't match, how could you consciously go forward with this?" Frey said.

Instead, a jury was convinced to convict him by jail house snitch testimony and an uncertain identification by the rape victim who could only say the rapist had a chubby build, a mustache and a raspy voice.

"The victim said that the voices were similar. I have a raspy voice. She never totally said, 'that's the guy, he's the one who did it,'" Frey said.

However, that was all known at the time of the trial. Bushnell and her students needed something new -- something that would advance a new defense.

Without that, there was nothing more to do.

"At that time we thought there wasn't any evidence left, we thought that it had all been destroyed, we heard from the Sheriff's Department, so we closed that application.  Joe actually wrote us a very polite and kind letter," Bushnell said.

"It was a very difficult letter to write because I was in a state of hopelessness at the time," Frey said.

It was really more of a prayer, a plea and a last request.

"Hold it.  You're making a mistake here.  Just humor me.  Please.  This is my life.   This is my life. Help me," Frey said.

Despite a letter from the Winnebago County Sheriff's Department saying all the evidence had been destroyed, Frey asked the Innocence Project to just see if there was a scrap of evidence somewhere that could show DNA results.

Bushnell agreed, and went to the Winnebago County Clerk's Office.

"At that time the clerk said, 'you know, I don't think that I would have anything from a case this old,' but she went and she checked and she found this piece of evidence sort of tucked in the back of  a cabinet at the time," Bushnell said.

It contained one thing that could help -- clippings of a stained sheet from the rape victim's bedroom -- the key to proving Frey's innocence.

"It matched someone else who is a convicted sex offender in the CODIS database," Bushnell said.

The DNA matched James Crawford -- a known sex offender who was convicted of sexually assaulting 12 and 13-year-old girls after the rape of the UW-Oshkosh student.

"So he went out and he destroyed two more lives -- young lives -- because of this," Frey said.

Soon after, Frey's conviction was officially vacated, and he was a free man.

"I had fought for it for all these years and finally to have that realization strike you is overwhelming," Frey said.

The weight of imprisonment had been lifted, but freedom would carry a burden of its own.

Frey walked out of prison a man without a home, with serious health conditions including diabetes, blood clots and a degenerative bone disease -- and without health insurance.

"I had was maybe 10 days supply of medication," Frey said.

Depression was again setting in.

"There were days when I was ready to take my life and give up," Frey said.

"Joe was released, but he was released without a dollar in his pocket, with nowhere to stay. No services for him. If he were being released on probation and on parole, he would be assigned a caseworker who would help him find housing and a job, but that's not what happens when a conviction is just thrown out," Bushnell said.

"One of the really sad ironies of this is if Joe had been released on parole as a guilty person he would get more support from the state than he gets from being an innocent person who didn't commit the crime," Keith Findley, the director of Wisconsin's Innocence Project said.

Frey found a homeless shelter.

"(The bed is) about three inches thick but it's on spring supports unlike prison which is on a solid piece of steel. When you have 40 plus grown men down here, it's loud, it's noisy, it smells, but that's part and parcel, for the price you pay for this. It's not the Ritz Carlton. It's a drop in shelter. This has its benefits -- one, you're not in prison anymore," Frey said.

During the day, Frey would walk or sit on a bench -- carrying his possessions in a duffel bag.

"Whatever possessions you have, you have to take with you at the end of the night," Frey said.

"Everyone thinks that we fixed the problem.  The conviction is overturned," Bushnell said.

"When we realize we've made a mistake, what do we do?  We open the prison doors and we say, 'have a good life' and the state does virtually nothing else to help them restore the life that's been taken away from them," Findley said.

Wisconsin is the worst in the nation when it comes to correcting these grievous mistakes. Wisconsin law states that the wrongfully convicted can get only $5,000 a year for up to five years -- a maximum of $25,000 total -- no matter how many years were spent in prison.

"I'd be willing to offer any state legislator, any state senate officer $25,000 to live on for five years, and see if you felt that was enough," Frey said.

"That rate puts us dead last among all the states in the nation that have a compensation package for wrongly convicted people," Findley said.

In other states, like Texas or Illinois, the wrongfully convicted have been awarded millions of dollars -- an acknowledgement that the misdirected power of the government has, in many ways, ruined a life.

"You can't put a dollar amount on someone's loss of a year or several years," State Rep. Gary Hebl (D - Sun Prairie) said.

Rep. Hebl has written a bill that would increase compensation -- getting rid of the caps.

"What we're looking at is protecting someone who has been wrongfully convicted and allowing them to get a second chance at their life, and it's a real shame that here in Wisconsin, we have ignored people who have been wrongfully convicted," Rep. Hebl said.

In the meantime, Frey's struggle continues, but he's sharing what he's learned on his journey with other former prisoners.

"We've all made mistake, but don't sit there and judge me only because things are good for you.  You got to open yourself up to the possibility that I'm a changed man too after all these years," Frey said.

Frey is one of 21 people who have been convicted and later exonerated by DNA evidence in Wisconsin since 1989.

"When you look for wrongful convictions, you find them," Findley said.

Frey wants us to keep looking, and to see the challenges he faced after prison.

"To put a face to this problem.  It's not just me.  There are many other people. We've got to address this," Frey said.

Two decades after his freedom was taken, he has nothing left to lose. In other words, he has his freedom -- and a chance to begin anew.

Frey was once a victim of the law, and is now an advocate working to change it.

"It is a rebirth.  It's the start of my life. I have that chance to start all over again, knowing what I know," Frey said.