Sandy D’Alembertehttp://www.innocenceproject.orghttp://www.innocenceproject.orghttp://www.law.fsu.edu/our-faculty/profiles/dalemberteThose who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit experience several injustices. One would think that once these people are finally released from prison, they can easily return to normal lives. However, this is usually not the case; many exonerees experience several issues ranging from trouble finding a job to familial and financial problems. One major issue that has recently come to light in regards to exoneration is compensation for people’s wrongful convictions. While 30 states and the federal government do have compensation statutes in place, many people feel that they are a measly excuse for an apology when it comes to putting a price on the decades some have spent wrongfully incarcerated. In fact, 20 states do not even have compensation statutes, meaning that exonerees are entitled to no money at all for the miscarriage of justice they endured.
According to federal law, those exonerated for federal crimes may receive up to $50,000 for each year they were wrongfully incarcerated. Exonerees may also receive an additional $50,000 for every year spent on death row.
Florida’s wrongful conviction compensation statute, which was most recently amended in 2014, states that exonerees with no prior felony convictions are entitled to $50,000 a year, with a maximum of $2 million. In addition, he/she may be reimbursed for fines or costs imposed during the time of his/her sentence, along with 120 hours of tuition at a career center, community college, or state university. Florida did not have a wrongful conviction compensation statute until 2008. Wilton Dedge, who was exonerated on August 11, 2004 with help from the Innocence Project, spent 22 years in prison for rape and burglary. After being released from prison for the crimes he did not commit, Dedge received no compensation from Florida for his wrongful conviction. After filing a lawsuit against the state that was dismissed by the trial court, he sought a private compensation bill from the Florida legislature. Although the bill originally did not pass, the legislature finally passed the private bill, which led to the creation of a Florida statute for wrongful conviction compensation in 2008. IPF founding board chair, Sandy D’Alemberte was principally responsible for helping Dedge get compensated. Florida’s statute, unfortunately excludes many exonerees who have felony convictions from prior to their wrongful conviction and incarceration.
Like Dedge, many exonerees feel cheated due to these statutes—or lack thereof—because they feel that most monetary maximums defined in them are not enough compensation for the time they wrongfully spent in prison. Because of this, many choose to file civil suits against the city, state, or the authorities that contributed to their wrongful convictions them in order to receive the recompense that they feel they deserve. Often times, these exonerees ask for millions of dollars, which cities and states are often not exactly willing to pay. This is another important issue in terms of wrongful conviction compensation that has gained increasing popularity. All over the United States, exonerees—especially those who have not received a penny for their time spent wrongfully imprisoned—are fighting back in the hopes of getting what they deserve. Alan Newton and David Ayers are just two examples of these exonerees who are still fighting municipalities decades later just to get what they deserve.
Alan Newton was convicted in 1985 for the rape, robbery, and assault of a New York City woman. After spending 21 years in prison for crimes he did not commit, he was finally exonerated on July 6, 2006 with help from the Innocence Project. New York’s statute for wrongful conviction compensation, which was amended in 2007, states that exonerees have two years from the time of their pardon to file a claim and receive compensation in a sum that the state deems fair and reasonable.
In 2010, a jury awarded Newton the $18 million he sought in a lawsuit against New York City. The following year, Manhattan Federal Court Judge Shira Scheindlin set aside that verdict because she felt that the city was not responsible for Newton’s wrongful conviction, and therefore he was not entitled to the money. On February 26, 2015, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Scheindlin’s judgment, subsequently rejecting New York City’s request to rehear the appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court also declined to hear the case after the city Law Department attempted to fight the case in that court.
Despite these rulings, New York City still will not pay Newton, citing that the decision of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals focused on whether the city was responsible for Newton’s wrongful incarceration rather than the appropriateness or the excessiveness of the $18 million. The city Law Department will once again turn to Judge Scheindlin in the hopes that he will reduce the amount of the compensation, arguing that they have no issue with the verdict, just the amount of damages sought by Newton based on similar cases. Despite these court losses, the City just doesn’t want to pay.
Another man in Cleveland faces the same problem as Newton. David Ayers was convicted in 2000 for aggravated murder, aggravated burglary, and aggravated robbery. He was exonerated on September 12, 2011 with help from the Ohio Innocence Project after spending almost 12 years in prison for crimes that he did not commit. Ohio statute for wrongful conviction compensation states that as long as an exoneree did not plead guilty, he/she has two years to file a claim in which he/she is eligible to receive $40,330 a year along with lost wages, costs, and attorney’s fees. The state amended this statute in 2010 to allow eligible claimants to receive 50 percent of the $40,330 within sixty days of being determined to have been wrongfully imprisoned.
Ayers rejected two plea deals offered to him by prosecutors and plead not guilty, making him eligible to sue for compensation under Ohio’s statute. In 2013, a federal court jury awarded Ayers the $13.2 million he sought in damages. The appeals court then upheld this verdict. However, just like New York City with Newton, Cleveland still will not pay Ayers. Cleveland officials argue that the two detectives who helped convict Ayers are responsible, not the city, and that the judgment of both courts was removed when one of those detectives filed for bankruptcy.
Thanks to cases such as those of Newton and Ayers, many states have recognized the need for reform in regards to wrongful conviction compensation statutes. Kansas, which is among the 20 states that still do not have these statutes, had a bill introduced to the legislature almost two weeks ago that would compensate exonerees for their time spent in prison. The bill was inspired by Floyd Bledsoe, who was exonerated in Kansas last month on December 8 with help from the Midwest Innocence Project after spending 16 years in prison for murder, child sex abuse, and kidnapping that he did not commit. Although the bill does not yet have a number or hearing scheduled, it is a step in the right direction towards the necessary reforms our justice system needs when it comes to compensating the innocent people who spent years behind bars.