Blog Post #39: Exonerated and Vulnerable: Compensation for the Innocent and Wrongfully Convicted

By Jordyn Coad

Last year was a record year for exonerations in the US.[1]  125 wrongfully convicted individuals were exonerated, the most since 1989.[2]  What happens when these innocent individuals are released from prison, some having served decades on death row?  Some states will issue “token” assistance or “gate money” and give exonerees a small sum of money, while others give no assistance at all.[3]  The sad reality is that many people spend years wrongfully imprisoned only to be released into society with little to no money, resources, or assistance.  For the lucky few, however, there is some hope for restitution when the state provides the opportunity for compensation.[4]  Despite this, not all state and federal statutes guarantee restitution. Sadly, only a few qualify for meaningful compensation, while others receive nothing or relatively negligible amounts in restitution.[5]

The federal government, D.C., and thirty states have statutory schemes to compensate the wrongfully convicted.[6]  But for those living in a state without a compensation statute, there are three roads to redress that are poor prospects for success.[7]  First, an exoneree may petition the state legislature to pass a private bill awarding compensation—highly unlikely without major media buzz or an incredibly sympathetic case.[8]  Alternatively, an exoneree may bring a federal civil rights lawsuit against the government or a state tort suit against the prosecutor, police, or even his defense attorney. [9]

Compensation statutes still require the exoneree to file a lawsuit against the state and prove that he qualifies.[10]  For example, Louisiana’s wrongful conviction compensation statute requires that the person’s conviction be reversed or vacated and requires that factual innocence be proven by clear and convincing evidence.[11]  It should be noted that “factual innocence” as defined in the statute means that the exoneree seeking compensation did not commit the crime for which he was convicted nor did he commit any lesser crime involving the same set of facts used in the original conviction.[12]  Even if an exoneree manages to meet these incredibly high standards, the ultimate decision regarding compensation is still left up to a judge.[13]  Louisiana compensates those it has wrongfully imprisoned at a rate of $25,000 per year, capped at $250,000.[14]  The statute also provides funds to pay for job-skills training, medical and counseling services as well as expenses for tuition at community colleges or state university.[15]

Glenn Ford was one of those 125 individuals exonerated last year.[16]  He is also one of the many unlucky exonerees who did not receive compensation in Louisiana.[17]  Ford spent thirty years on death row for a murder he did not commit—more time than any other exoneree in the US.[18]  To make matters worse, he has been diagnosed with Stage 4 Lung Cancer and faces an increasing number of medical bills.[19]  However, in March of this year, a judge denied his request for compensation, finding that although he was not responsible for the murder, he failed to prove that he was not guilty of lesser crimes.[20] Ford is appealing this ruling as well as suing police, prosecutors, and prison officials, alleging that prison officials ignored his illness and failed provide proper treatment.[21]  Unfortunately, there are many more exonerees like Glenn Ford still waiting for these reparations.

The standard of proving factual innocence places an incredible burden on an innocent person who has suffered great injustice at the hands of the state.  Is it not enough to compensate those who have spent decades in prison for a crime they did not commit?  While money may seem to some like a poor remedy, it’s the least a government can do after wrongly taking a person’s freedom.  Exonerees deserve this compensation as both an apology for the wrong done to them and as a much-needed aid for those re-entering society with nothing.

[1] The National Registry of Exonerations, Exonerations in 2014, 1 (2015),available athttps://www.law.umich.edu/special/exoneration/Documents/Exonerations_in_2014_report.pdf.

[2] Id.

[3] See Deborah Mostaghel, Wrongfully Incarcerated, Randomly Compensated-How to Fund Wrongful-Conviction Compensation Statutes, 44 Ind. L. Rev. 503, 509 (2011).

[4] Compensating the Wrongly Convicted, The Innocence Project (Oct. 10, 2014, 9:20 AM), http://www.innocenceproject.org/free-innocent/improve-the-law/fact-sheets/compensating-the-wrongly-convicted.

[5] See id.

[6] Id.

[7] See Mostaghel, supra note 3, at 510.

[8] Id.

[9] See id. at 510-11.

[10] Id. at 510.

[11] La. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 15:572.8 (A) (2014).

[12] Id. § 15:572.8 (B).

[13] Id. § 15:572.8 (D) (noting that a judge may consider any other relevant conduct or evidence in a compensation proceeding).

[14] Id. § 15:572.8 (H) (2).

[15] Id.

[16] Lindsey Bever, After Nearly 30 Years on Death Row, Glenn Ford is exonerated—and Free, Washington Post (Mar. 12, 2014),http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/03/12/after-nearly-30-years-on-death-row-glenn-ford-is-exonerated-and-free/.

[17] Vickie Welborn, Judge Denies Glenn Ford Compensation, Shreveport Times (Mar. 27, 2015),http://www.shreveporttimes.com/story/news/local/2015/03/27/glenn-ford-exonerated-compensation-katherine-dorroh-aaron-sandler-kristin-wenstrom-isadore-rozeman/70575350/.

[18] Cancer-Stricken Glenn Ford Seeks Compensation for 30 Years on Death Row, The Innocence Project (Mar. 17, 2015, 4:15 PM),http://www.innocenceproject.org/news-events-exonerations/cancer-stricken-glenn-ford-seeks-compensation-for-30-years-on-death-row.

[19] See id.

[20] See Welborn, supra note 17.

[21] Jonathan Bullington, Glenn Ford, Freed After 29 Years on Death Row, Suing for Wrongful Conviction and Denied Cancer Treatment, The Times-Picayune (Mar. 11, 2015),http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2015/03/glenn_ford_exonerated_after_30.html.