The Exoneration Lottery Sends Some Home with Millions, Others Empty-Handed

Victims of wrongful incarceration are often asked to re-prove their innocence to qualify for compensation.

Ricky Jason received a $1 million settlement after wrongfully spending nearly four decades behind bars in Ohio. (Photo: Kim Palmer/Reuters)

Mar 23, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Exonerations of the wrongfully convicted have been on the rise since the mid-1980s, when DNA evidence emerged as one of the most reliable tools for lawyers seeking justice for their clients. But in spite of the steady increase in overturned convictions, nearly three decades later there is still no uniform system for compensating the innocent.

Glenn Ford spent 30 years on death row in Louisiana for murder he didn’t commit. He was released from prison last year after a witness in the case withdrew her testimony but is now faced with a new hurdle: a legal battle with the state to be compensated for the time he spent behind bars. Even though Louisiana has a law that mandates an exonerated person is entitled to $25,000 per year of incarceration, with a $250,000 cap, the state insists that Ford hasn’t proved his “factual innocence.” In other words, he has to prove his case all over again.

Meanwhile, in Illinois, Juan Rivera settled a civil lawsuit against the law enforcement agencies that sent him to prison to the tune of $20 million last week—that’s $1 million per year after he was wrongly incarcerated for the murder of an 11-year-old girl. Rivera’s settlement is believed to be the largest wrongful conviction award in U.S. history, according to a report. Rivera was released in 2012, and he has been fighting for compensation ever since.

“Getting compensated often requires you to prove your innocence once again,” said Rebecca Brown, policy director of the Innocence Project, which works to overturn wrongful convictions. “It is yet another hurdle that the innocent must face after they’ve gained their freedom.”

While 30 states and the District of Columbia currently have laws that mandate payment to exonerated prisoners, the patchwork of statutes vary, according to Brown. Texas’ compensation statute is the most generous, permitting $80,000 for each year an innocent person spent behind bars. On the other end of the spectrum lies New Hampshire, which pays a flat fee of $20,000 to exonerated individuals, regardless of how long they were incarcerated. In Montana, only an educational stipend is offered.

The strange calculus each state uses to quantify the value of time lost behind bars also varies. In Ohio last week, for example, Ricky Jackson won a $1 million settlement for spending nearly four decades wrongfully locked up. And then there are the 20 states that simply don’t have laws that govern compensation.

“A lot of these state laws are just lacking and need to be revisited,” Brown told TakePart. “States should be doing all that they can to make up for that loss of liberty.”

In states that have case-by-case-basis laws for compensation, or that don’t have such statutes, civil suits brought by organizations such as the Innocence Project tend to crop up, according to Brown. In Rivera’s case, had he not pursued a civil suit, the Illinois statute would have compensated him a maximum of just $199,150.

In a highly unusual move, the lead prosecutor who put Ford behind bars recently called on the state to compensate the finally freed man and apologized profusely to Ford and his family in an editorial for The Shreveport Times. Louisiana continues to deny Ford’s requests. Meanwhile, a doctor has diagnosed Ford with terminal lung cancer and told him he has four to eight months left to live. Ford has told the media that if he is compensated, he will give the money to his family.