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Sandra Hemme spent 43 years wrongfully imprisoned. Missouri would pay little if she is freed

Sandra Hemme (middle) stands with her mother and sister.
The Innocence Project
Sandra Hemme (middle) stands with her mother and sister.

Missouri state law promises $100 a day for each day of life lost to prison on a wrongful conviction. For Sandra Hemme, who was first convicted in 1981, that’s roughly $1.6 million — which some critics say is too little for more than four decades behind bars.

After serving 43 years in prison for a murder case hinged on things she said as a psychiatric patient, Sandra Hemme could be cleared of the killing and freed in less than three weeks, by July 14.

For that, Missouri state law promises $100 a day for each day of her life lost to prison on a wrongful conviction. For Hemme, who was first convicted in 1981 for the 1980 killing, that’s roughly $1.6 million.

Some critics say that’s too little for 43 years. If her case had been in federal court, she would be in line for about a third more. In Kansas, nearly twice as much. In Texas, the money would have been more than doubled.

Livingston County Circuit Judge Ryan Horsman ruled in mid-June that the state must free Hemme unless prosecutors retried her in the next 30 days. Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey said shortly after the ruling that his appeals division would look into whether to challenge the judge’s decision.

The judge ruled that prosecutors presented no forensic evidence or motive linking Hemme to the killing of library worker Patricia Jeschke in St. Joseph, Missouri, in November 1980.

Rather, the case relied on what she said in a psychiatric ward in a St. Joseph hospital. At the time, she said conflicting and impossible things. At one point, she claimed to see a man commit the killing, but he was in another city at the time. At other times, she said she knew about the murder because of extrasensory perception. Two weeks into talks with detectives, she said she thought she stabbed Jeschke with a hunting knife, but she wasn’t sure.

Hemme’s lawyers accuse a now-discredited police officer of her murder. In a rare departure from its policy a year ago, the attorney general’s office didn’t object to a hearing to explore a wrongful-conviction claim.

If she’s cleared, Hemme’s case would mark the longest known wrongful conviction of a woman in U.S. history.

Her compensation for those years in jail will not be a record.

Caps on wrongful-conviction compensation vary widely across the country. In federal cases, the limit is $50,000 for every year someone’s wrongly held in prison plus $100,000 for every year on death row.

In Washington, D.C., the cap is $200,000 a year. Connecticut pays as much as $131,506. Nevada has a sliding scale that pays $100,000 a year on cases of 20 years or more.

Kansas pays $65,000 for each year. In more than a dozen other states, the rate runs from $50,000 to $80,000. Of states that set limits or promise compensation, Missouri’s $36,500 a year is low.

The National Registry of Exonerations counts 54 people convicted of crimes in Missouri who have been exonerated since 1989. Only nine of them got payouts from the state. Missouri is the only state that gives wrongly imprisoned inmates compensation if they were proved not guilty by DNA analysis.

Gov. Mike Parson vetoed a bill in 2023 that could have provided inmates proven not guilty with a larger compensation up to $179 a day, allowed prosecutors to seek judicial review of past cases and created a state special unit to help prosecutors with investigating cases.

This story was originally published by The Beacon, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

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