The final episode of Netflix's docuseries on The Innocence Project is dedicated to the story of Kenneth Wyniemko, a Michigan man who was wrongfully convicted of rape based upon questionable use of a composite sketch.
Wyniemko was arrested and charged in a rape and robbery case — the sickening details of which are recounted by a recording of the victim in "The Innocence Files." The woman was awoken and tied up by a masked intruder, who proceeded to blindfold her with her own underwear and sexually assault her for hours inside her own home, according to the docuseries.
The victim said she was unable to get a clear enough look at her attacker, but provided police with some details that allowed them to produce a composite sketch.
The composite sketch (and an apparent anonymous tip) is what led Michigan police to Wyniemko, who was placed in a police lineup and identified by the victim. Wyniemko was convicted on 15 counts of criminal sexual contact, largely based on witness testimony from the victim and a jailhouse "snitch," the docuseries explained.
He was sentenced to 40 to 60 years in prison.
Wyniemko contends he was set up by the local police, as he had thrown a drunk police officer out of the bowling alley he managed the year he was arrested, he told the docuseries.
Ultimately, Wyniemko wrote to the Innocence Project to review his case in 1995, but Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck told the docuseries that his organization was inundated with requests at the time.
Wyniemko was able to get his case noticed by a writer for the Detroit Free Press, however, and her coverage of his conviction resulted in attorney Gail Pamukov and the Cooley Innocence Project taking up his case. The Western Michigan University-Cooley Innocence Project was founded in 2001 after Michigan passed a law allowing for review of post-conviction DNA evidence, the Cooley Innocence Project's current director Marla Mitchell-Cichon told Oxygen.com in an interview.
There were a number of constraints about prisoners who were eligible for post-conviction review, Mitchell-Cichon explained to Oxygen.com. One of the main restrictions was that a prisoner had to have maintained innocence in their case, but Wyniemko had met all the necessary criteria. Other advocates came to his defense after reviewing the case.
"I became pretty outraged at how thin the evidence was," Pamukov told the docuseries.
Even Judge Carl Marlinga, who was the county prosecutor at the time of Wyniemko's arrest, noted the police lineup that resulted in Wyniemko being identified by the victim was unconstitutional.
"This was a hardball, rock solid, unconstitutional lineup," Marlinga said, noting the victim was not completely sure what her assailant looked like, and that Wyniemko did not even match the general body type of the assailant she had described to police. She said rapist was almost 6'3, while Wyniemko was only 5'11.
The woman who prosecuted Wyniemko, Linda Davis, said in a recorded deposition featured in the docuseries that she was aware of evidence that could have been tested for DNA, but claimed the technology to do so wasn't available at the time in 1995.
DNA testing was "comparatively common" during that year, Scheck told the docuseries, adding that a cigarette butt found at the crime scene would have been a great source of DNA evidence if it was tested.
While DNA evidence was being used in prosecutions throughout the 1990s, it was not as common in exonerations, Mitchell-Cichon told Oxygen.com.
Evidence from the victim's rape kit and from the crime scene, however, was preserved following Wyniemko's conviction, and his attorneys were able to obtain it for testing.
"The DNA profile from the cigarette butt and fingernail scrapings identified an unknown DNA donor and definitively excluded Ken," Pamukov told the docuseries.
Not only did the DNA exonerate Wyniemko, but the evidence also identified a different man down the road — Craig Gonser, whose physical description matched up with the victim's description of her assailant, the docuseries noted.
In 2010, Gonser was sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison for exposing himself to his 1-year-old daughter and multiple acts of sexual delinquency, The Oakland Press newspaper reported at the time. Gonser is currently incarcerated in a Michigan state prison, according to a review of online jail records.
Due to the statute of limitations, Gonser has never been charged in connection to the 1994 rape.
Davis was ultimately elected to a judgeship, and an inquiry found no evidence of prosecutorial misconduct in her handling of Wyniemko's case. She retired from the bench in 2019 to take a position with a nonprofit anti-opioid abuse organization, according to the Macomb Daily newspaper.
What Happened To Kenneth Wyniemko?
Wyniemko eventually sued the county for his wrongful conviction. The lawsuit was settled for $3.7 million, but Wyniemko argued the money was not worth spending nine years in prison.
He went on to start a criminal justice foundation and is doing well — working with groups in the state of Michigan in pursuit of criminal justice reform, Mitchell-Cichon told Oxygen.com.
His foundation — which provided recent exonerees with financial help — is no longer active, but Wyniemko himself still works to host fundraisers for the wrongfully incarcerated, the Associated Press reported in 2019.
"If I see something wrong, I have to stand up and speak out, and do something about it. It's not in my DNA not to help somebody," Wyniemko told the AP at the time. "That's why I do what I do: I know it's the right thing. I'm doing all I can to get into heaven when my time comes, and I think that's by helping other people. It's as simple as that."
The Cooley Innocence Project has screened more than 5,700 cases, and their actions have led to the exonerations of four men, Mitchell-Cichon told Oxygen.com. She also noted that the Cooley Innocence Project's work — along with other DNA exoneration organizations around the country — have "opened the window" to challenge evidentiary methods like eyewitness testimony and hair analysis, which are not based in scientific practice.
Mitchell-Cichon also praised the work of various volunteers and Cooley Law School students who work on researching and gathering evidence in exoneration cases. "It takes a village to exonerate," she told Oxygen.com.
"The Innocence Files" is available to stream on Netflix beginning April 15.
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