"The prisoner was innocent," Fred Saecker barely choked out as he read the Wisconsin Claims Board finding.
Nearly 20 years later, the piece of paper referring to his innocence still holds significant weight.
Saecker, who now lives in Sparta, never thought it would happen to him. He was spent seven years in prison for a crime he did not commit. "You have full trust in judges and law enforcement and that everything is going to come to light, everything that will be right and justice will be served," he said.
But the system failed and justice for Saecker was not served.
He was arrested in June of 1989 in Buffalo County near Bluff Siding. Later a jury found him guilty of kidnapping, sexual assault and burglary.
"There's hopelessness and 'Why me' and that continues to go on all the time you are in prison; trying to figure out what you did, why it happened, what was wrong? Just anything," Saecker remembered.
Saecker said he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was convicted on circumstantial evidence after being seen walking on highway near where the victim was kidnapped. He was intoxicated and did not recall his actions that night.
But Saecker was not picked out of the line up and did not fit the victim's description of the suspect.
A year into Saecker's 50 year prison sentence, his mother wrote a letter to the Buffalo County Public Defender.
"She somehow explained to them that I was innocent and they took an interest in the case and started investigating," he explained.
DNA evidence found on the victim's underwear the night of the crime did not match Saecker's. He was set free 1996. The actual culprit was never found.
"I had issues when I got out, and I continue to have issues that are post traumatic stress. Psychological things that happen to you that are trigger that you can't really explain," he said.
But now, as an advocate for the Wisconsin Innocence Project, Saecker is dedicated to making change.
Since 1998, the UW-Law School's Wisconsin Innocence Project has freed 21 people from crimes they did not commit. A group of law students work to prove their clients' innocence and to understand where the system went wrong.
"The criminal justice system is a very high-stakes enterprise but it's a human enterprise so it's bound to make mistakes. So we need constant vigilance to make sure we are minimizing those errors and that when we make them we have a system to correct them," Keith Findley, co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project said.
Findley said the state is decades behind others when it comes to compensating those wrongfully convicted.
"There are few things that the government can do to a individual that are more horrific then to take away someone's liberty, to lock them up for crime they didn't commit," he said.
Saecker agreed and said he was left with nothing when he got out of prison.
"Many of these men are let out with no clothes, a dollar in their pocket and that's it. And they just have to go back into society and find their way," Saecker added.
The Wisconsin Claims Board awarded Saecker $25,000. Under Wisconsin law, exonerees can received $5,000 dollars for every year spent wrongfully in prison, but it's capped at $25,000, half of the state's annual median family income. Lawmakers argue it's not nearly enough.
"You hear about how they have foregone starting a family, how they have foregone spending time with the family they have now, how they have forgone careers, about the public humiliation associated with their names that with the era of the internet they can never ever take away," Rep. Dale Kooyenga, (R) 14th District, said
Saecker testified in Madison on behalf of Rep. Kooyenga's bill that would allow the Wisconsin Claims Court to give an exoneree $50,000 a year, up to $1 million dollars, along with job training, health care benefits and financial literacy training. But the bill died in the State Senate, in part because it allowed for court records to be sealed at the defendants request.
"I know what the problem is now with the bill, I know what the concerns are and even though I disagree with their concerns on that portion of the bill, I will be taking that portion of the bill out in order to compromise, in order to get the overall bill passed," Kooyenga said.
Nearly 20 years later, Saecker said he's come to terms with what happened.
"There is also a forgiveness that has to take place. It isn't the particular people that made that happen that are responsible for it. It's the evil in the world. It's more or less a battle of good against evil and sometimes evil wins," Saecker said everyone has a role in fighting back.
"We should all be working to make sure it doesn't happen. When you serve on a jury, when you get involved in any type of case, be really doubtful that that person has done what they've done," he said.
Saecker now has a reliable job at a Sparta factory and is involved with his church. He said he will continue to work with both lawmakers and the Wisconsin Innocence Project to be sure that those wrongfully convicted are compensated for the years that were taken from them.