Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Improve compensation laws

The following editorial from a Louisiana newspaper could have been written (with only the name and case facts changed) by any of a number of papers in states across the country. Even though the federal government passed legislation in 2004 that encourages all states to have laws compensating their wrongly imprisoned citizens, only 22 have so far followed through.

The Shreveport Times, January 20, 2008 -- Rickey Johnson's release from prison after 25 years puts him in the category of nine other Louisianans who were exonerated of crimes for which they were wrongly imprisoned.

Johnson, of Leesville, was officially cleared of the aggravated rape charge of which he was convicted in 1983. The photo in which Johnson was identified was eight years old. He was convicted of the rape in January 1983 and sentenced to life without parole.

According to the Innocence Project, eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions, a factor in 75 percent of the 212 DNA exonerations nationwide.

The Innocence Project, established in 1992, uses DNA testing technology and the help of law students to review past criminal trials to determine if accused individuals were convicted under false pretenses.

But what's next for Johnson? "I can never get back what I lost and I'm not going to try. I'm just going to focus on the future," he said.

Confronting an ever-changing world after serving years in prison can be challenging at best. Social skills diminished by countless years in prison don't translate well in the outside world. And what about job skills? And education?

No amount of money can get back what was lost by serving a quarter of a century in prison for something that he didn't do. Certainly a system that robbed Johnson of a significant part of his life owes him more than a get-out-of-jail-free pass. But it's a start.

Although in Louisiana, it's happening rarely, with compensation awarded to only two of the 10 men who have been exonerated by the Innocence Project.

Continue reading.

NOTE: Although Louisiana has a compensation law on the books, it currently pays only $15,000 per year of wrongful incarceration with a cap of $150,000. That's well below the federal standard of $50,000 per year ($100,000 for death row cases).

Of course it's still better than Florida where exonerees must go to the state capitol (without benefit of a bill on the books) and beseech the legislature for compensation in the form of an individual claims bill. Ask Alan Crotzer what that's like; he's made the trip for two years straight and is set to return, hat in hand, for a third round of pleading.

It's a disgraceful and humiliating exercise that should embarrass every legislator in Tallahassee. When the State has robbed a man of more than half his life, it's rather unsettling to realize that the victim must then spend years begging said State to do the right thing. Maybe this detestable dance explains why, of Florida's nine exonerees, only Wilton Dedge has so far been paid.

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