by CHRIS ROGERS
In 2014 Kurt Knuesel sent Roger Olsen a letter that sparked a series of still-unfolding events that could make Minnesota history and help, in some small way, right a terrible wrong in Olsen's life.
Actually, Knuesel had no idea if Olsen would get the letter. After scrounging for some information on Olsen's whereabouts, Knuesel printed Olsen's last known address on the outside of the envelope, dropped it in the mail, and hoped for the best, not knowing Olsen no longer lived there. Knuesel had never even met Olsen, but he knew his name. To Knuesel, and every other defense attorney in Southeast Minnesota, Olsen's case was famous.
In 2006, Olsen was convicted of a rape he never committed. A jury in Caledonia found Olsen guilty of sexually assaulting a minor. Olsen was convicted primarily on the testimony of the purported victim without any physical evidence proving his guilt, according to attorneys for Olsen and numerous news reports. Olsen insisted he was innocent, but the jury did not believe him and he was sentenced to a Minnesota prison. He spent nearly two years there with the label "child rapist."
"It was not two years," said Steve Meshbesher, Olsen's attorney in a case seeking reparations for his wrongful imprisonment. "It was 503 days. He counted every day." Olsen told reporters from across the region that other inmates knew what he had been sentenced for and targeted him because of it. "Things happened in the prison system that were horrible," Meshbesher said.
Then, in 2007, the same girl who accused Olsen accused another man of a similar assault. The girl's story about what happened in that alleged assault was nearly identical to her story about Olsen, and that man had testified in Olsen's trial that the girl was credible, Meshbesher reported. "Those allegations were investigated and found to be false," Knuesel said. The girl's false accusations against the other man raised serious red flags for investigators about her allegations against Olsen. "She was lying," Knuesel said. As a result, Olsen was granted the right to new trial, and then the Houston County Attorney's Office dropped all of the charges against him. Suddenly, in 2008, Olsen was vindicated and freed.
That would have been the end of the story. For decades, for Minnesotans who were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned, an acknowledgement that they were not guilty after all was the best they could hope for. In 2014, the Minnesota legislature passed a new law allowing the victims of wrongful convictions to seek monetary reparations from the state. Local state representative Steve Drazkowski co-authored a bipartisan bill that became the law.
Knuesel was scrolling through the requirements of the new law in his office in downtown Winona when it hit him. "As I went through the list one-by-one, I realized this describes Roger," he explained. Olsen had served prison time for a felony, he had been exonerated of all the charges against him, he was not serving time for any other convictions, and he never took a plea deal. Olsen always insisted he was innocent.
"It occurred to me that someone ought to let this guy know that this release is available," Knuesel said. Knuesel had trouble reaching Olsen, partly because Olsen had gotten his case expunged so that all court records on the case were sealed. However, the Winona attorney mailed a letter to the best address he could find for Olsen and crossed his fingers. Olsen was not living there anymore, but his brother was, and one day Knuesel got a call from Roger.
Knuesel worked with the Houston County Attorney's Office and the Houston County District Court to begin the process for seeking reparations for Olsen. Last July, assistant county attorney Suzanne Bublitz and Houston County District Court Judge James Fabian — the same judge who presided over Olsen's trial — signed off on statements affirming that Olsen was eligible for reparations and waiving any challenges to the request.
"Much to my amazement, the Houston County attorney and the judge who tried the case have completely cooperated. I think they all believed this minor lied and now they want to do something to help Roger," Meshbesher said.
From there, Knuesel referred Olsen to Meshbesher, who negotiated with state agency officials and a three-judge panel to decide how much Olsen should get. The settlement was announced last week: $475,000.
"Whether that compensates him for what seems like two years of hell, I don't know," Knuesel said. "But it's a step in the right direction," he added.
"At least it's something," Drazkowski echoed. "Prior to this law there was nothing, and these people basically had their liberties stolen without any recognition of it." Drazkowski offered his apologies for what the state government did to Olsen.
Before Olsen will see a cent, the Minnesota Legislature must approve the settlement. Legislators are expected to vote on the compensation for Olsen and two other exonerated Minnesotans during the March-through-May legislative session this spring. Olsen and those two other men would be the first people in state history to receive such reparations under the new law.
"It leaves you with kind of a sick feeling because we have a system that is, in theory, the best legal system in the world, but it didn't work," Meshbesher reflected.
"As a culture and as a people, we have to hold our government accountable so that its goal — and ultimately its outcome — is 100 percent accuracy, because anything else steals precious liberty from people like Roger," Drazkowski said.
"We're trying to make it right with those who are wrongly imprisoned," said Jonelle Tummel, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Office of Management and Budget, a state agency that helped negotiate the settlement.
Bublitz and current Houston County Attorney Sam Jandt were not immediately available for comment.