While various states across the nation have their share of criminal cases reflecting severe miscarriages of justice, we all know that beyond the borders of the United States there, too, are instances wherein innocent people have been wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit. Within a great majority of the legal quandaries associated with each case, however, are questions relating to compensation for the wrongfully convicted. In Florida, for example, some exonerated men are eligible to be compensated $50,000 for each year of time spent behind bars. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule.
To receive payment the exoneree must meet eligibility requirements outlined in the Victims of Wrongful Incarceration Compensation Act, a bill established in 2008 by the Florida legislature. In addition, the exoneree must meet provisional requirements of the bill’s “clean hands” mandate. The conditions for receipt of funds are determined by the facts of a recipient’s criminal record prior to (and during) the wrongful incarceration.
Legislation supported by the Innocence Project of Florida (IPF) has been presented to lawmakers in an effort to overturn the “Clean Hands” provision and to assist the exonerated in rebuilding their lives. IPF’s efforts have been met, however, with strong opposition from lawmakers who are unwilling to support compensation for the wrongfully convicted men. Such actions, it seems to me, shows an unwillingness to acknowledge that an egregious miscarriage of justice occurred in the first instance. The State of Florida, lawmakers seem to be saying to the exonerated men, did a wicked thing by convicting you for something you did not do, but hey, you’re free now, so go and make the best of it.
I am of the opinion that (perhaps) after decades of imprisonment, when an exonerated man might have lost family members and loved ones, that he might also be a bit guarded upon entering a new world alone and without support. While a monetary compensation certainly cannot make up for a life lost to imprisonment, it can most assuredly help ease the transition towards rebuilding a life fractured by the state’s negligence.
In Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Kyle Unger, freed in 2009 after spending 14 years (of a 25-year sentence for a murder he did not commit), is seeking $14.5 million in compensation from provincial and federal justice officials for an array of “damages,” including, according to his lawsuit, “loss of freedom, loss of enjoyment of life, severe emotional trauma and distress.” He was, according to court documents, “deprived of his youth, his education, and a normal working life.” Unger’s lawsuit asserts that police and prosecutors used “faulty techniques,” including a breach of Unger’s constitutional rights, to help convict him. He arrived at the compensatory amount by appealing for one million dollars for every year spent in prison, plus related court costs.
In Texas, Anthony Graves, exonerated in 2010 for a 1994 conviction, is seeking compensation from the state for each of the 16 years he spent on death row for a crime he, too, did not commit. In court documents Graves maintains, among numerous legal and ethical breaches, that “prosecutors elicited false statements and withheld testimony [from witnesses] that could have influenced the jury.” His legal struggles survived numerous hearings and appeals to reach the point of exoneration. For each year of his wrongful incarceration, he is seeking compensation in the amount of $80K, the state of Texas’ compensatory threshold.
I offer this discussion in an effort to not only highlight the importance of the work of various Innocence Projects across the nation and beyond, but to ask that we engage ourselves in the business of staying informed. While a range of organizations might function under diverse names, their work is significant in aspects too numerous to declare.
Despite the fact that we might not recognize the vulnerabilities that we all face in this win-at-all-cost society in which we live, we are, I believe, in this thing together.