Detroit Free Press

Freed by science, he celebrates
DNA tests exonerate a man convicted of rape and robbery

June 18, 2003

BY KIM NORTH SHINE
DETROIT FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER
 
Throughout nine years of incarceration, Kenneth Wyniemko imagined how he would spend his first day as a free man should he be cleared of his rape and armed robbery conviction.

His first stop, he promised himself, would be a church to thank God.

His second, the cemetery where his father is buried.

On Tuesday, a few hours after his conviction was overturned by a Macomb County judge, Wyniemko was praying and crying over his father's grave.

At Resurrection Cemetery in Clinton Township, a misty rain fell as Wyniemko wiped away debris from his father's grave. His father died in May 2000, after spending nearly his life savings hiring attorneys to try to secure his son's acquittal.
 
Wyniemko gently patted the engraved letters on the headstone. He cried, made the sign of the cross and prayed.

"He's looking down on this right now," Wyniemko said. "These rain drops might be his tears."

Wyniemko's visit to the church was postponed. The church was closed.

Friends, family and the volunteer attorneys who won his freedom wanted to celebrate with champagne at the home of two of Wyniemko's best friends.

Later, after most of the supporters had said good-bye, he finally savored a chilled Budweiser, given to him by his namesake son who is eager to make up for the lost years.

"This is surreal. I still can't believe this is happening," Wyniemko said.

Earlier in the day in a packed Mt. Clemens courtroom, Wyniemko was exonerated after a judge agreed that DNA analysis determined that an unknown person committed the crimes against a Clinton Township woman in 1994.

The woman, then 28, was raped repeatedly over four hours in the middle of the night. The attacker also stole about $3,000. The Free Press generally does not identify victims of sexual assaults.

Wyniemko had maintained his innocence throughout his incarceration, writing to attorneys, newspapers, TV news shows and learning the law from prison.

Tears and applause broke out in the courtroom after Macomb County Circuit Judge Edward Servitto declared Wyniemko "an innocent man."

Servitto broke with protocol by telling bailiffs to keep Wyniemko out of handcuffs for the proceeding.

He also allowed Wyniemko to hug his friends and son in the courtroom before he was transferred to the Macomb County Jail to be bonded out and pick up his belongings.

In the courtroom, the father and son cried as they embraced, moving Macomb County Prosecutor Carl Marlinga to tears.

"I didn't expect it to be this emotional," Marlinga said after the hearing. "I feel good. I want people to know this man is absolutely innocent."

During the nearly half-hour court proceeding, State Police forensic scientist Sarah Thibault testified to the certainty of the recently completed DNA tests, which found the unknown person's DNA in saliva on a cigarette butt, in scrapings under the victim's fingernails and on semen-stained nylons used as a gag on the victim.

Servitto said, "This has been a long and trying experience for Mr. Wyniemko. . . . But this court is satisfied that the defendant was not the perpetrator of this crime."

Servitto also agreed with Marlinga's request that there be no retrial, and dismissed the case.

Wyniemko told the crowd: "Thank you everyone and God bless you."

He was serving more than 60 years. He would not have been eligible for parole until 2025 at age 74. He turned 52 in jail on Sunday.
After a nearly two-hour wait at the jail, Wyniemko was released. The door to freedom opened on TV cameras, bright lights, microphones and smiling faces.

Shaking and sweating, he said, he thanked God and his attorney Gail Pamukov, who took the case at no cost. He also thanked the Innocence Project at Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, where law professors and students began reviewing the case in May 2001, and the Detroit Free Press for publishing articles about his case.

"I didn't know how long it would take," he said. "But I knew this day would come."

Pamukov, for the first time relaxed since she began work on the case more than a year ago, reflected:

"Most attorneys in a lifetime couldn't expect a case like this. It's also a victory for DNA testing . . . and how important that it is that it be utilized in all cases."

Wyniemko is the second Michigan prisoner to be exonerated using DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project. More than 130 such exonerations have taken place nationwide.

Wyniemko departed in clothes provided by attorneys who worked to release him, for his first day of freedom since November 1994.

From the jail, a caravan of cars traveled to the Clinton Township home of two of Wyniemko's friends.

There, the giddy and relieved group of supporters made champagne toasts. They talked about the dream ending to a nightmare.
They sang "Happy Birthday" to Wyniemko in English and in Polish, giving him a belated celebration of his 52nd birthday.

"I couldn't have asked for a better present," he said after blowing out his candles.

He said he was slow to figure out what to do with his freedom.

For nine years, he's been told what to do, when to do it and where to do it in the confines of prison walls. In that time he has missed momentous occasions. His father's funeral. The births of two grandchildren.

Wyniemko will soon meet his grandchildren, a month-old boy and 2 1/2-year-old girl.

"I want my father to see his grandchildren for the first time," said his son, Kenny Wynem. He changed his name while living in San Diego and being raised by his mother and stepfather.

"My dad and myself have a lot of catching up to do," he said. "I have to get to know my dad."

The release came two years and one month after the Cooley school students and professors decided to review Wyniemko's conviction and request that the evidence undergo DNA analysis.

Servitto thanked Pamukov, Marlinga and the Innocence Project for freeing a wrongly convicted man. He said the judicial system worked, contrary to popular belief.

"I've heard this is a failure of the system," Servitto said. "That is not true. Justice prevailed."


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