Pennsylvania ponders compensation for exonerated prisoners

Posted By Erin Clark On November 14, 2016 @ 6:00 am

Twenty-five years after Anthony Wright was arrested for the 1991 rape and murder of a 77-year-old Philadelphia woman, Louise Taley, he was released from prison.

He was the 344th person in the United States to be exonerated based on DNA evidence.  At his first trial, he narrowly escaped a death sentence.

Wright was 20 years old at the time of his arrest. Now 45 and less than three months out of prison, he is back in court to get something that exonerated individuals in most states already have.

Photo courtesy of the Innocence Project

FREE AT LAST: Anthony Wright and his attorney, Nina Morrison of the Innocence Project [1].

Thirty states have statutes that provide for some form of compensation for people who are exonerated after serving years in prison for wrongful conviction.  Pennsylvania isn’t one of them.

Data from the National Registry of Exonerations show that the rate of exonerations has increased rapidly in recent years.  The registry reports 1,733 exonerations between 1989 and Jan. 27, 2016.  Information from 29 states, D.C., and the federal courts shows 149 exonerations in 2015; 3 of those were in Pennsylvania. On average, the people exonerated in 2015 had spent 14.5 years in prison.

Five years ago, an advisory panel recommended [2] ways the commonwealth could bring its compensation policies in line with accepted best practices.  The panel’s findings initially received pushback from law enforcement and victims advocacy groups. But many of its conclusions have found their way into legislation — but not yet into law.

A measure [3] introduced in May by state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, would provide for a claimant whose innocence is established after being wrongfully convicted and imprisoned to be awarded damages for time served and compensation for reintegration services.

“It’s important to call attention to this because it’s about justice,” Greenleaf told Watchdog in an interview.  “I can’t imagine anything more unjust than a person being convicted of a serious crime — and these are the ones that we know about — and spending years, decades in prison and then not being compensated by the commonwealth.”

But Greenleaf’s own committee — he chairs the Judiciary panel — never held a hearing on the bill.

The legislation has bipartisan support from lawmakers across the state, including Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D- Forest Hills, and Sen. Don White, R-Indiana.

But Greenleaf said legislative leaders have had other priorities — particularly revamping education funding and resolving a budget dispute with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolfe. Establishing a state standard for compensating the wrongly convicted, who in any case can go to court to get their satisfaction, has taken a back seat.

Greenleaf says he plans to reintroduce the bill in the 2017 legislative session, and has a meeting planned with Lt. Gov. Mike Stack to discuss how to move forward.

The measure, which follows many of the recommendations of the 2011 panel, would:

— Give exonerated persons $50,000 per year of imprisonment, adjusted for inflation.

— Provide reintegration assistance and health care costs incurred between release and payment of compensation.

— Bar the state from subtracting money from the compensation to pay for its own court costs and other expenses.

— Prohibit taxing of compensation payments.

— Set a two-year time limit for exonerees to seek compensation.

— Bar exonerees from seeking further damages or restitution in court.

One of the ironies of the existing system is that people who were rightly convicted have services available to them upon release that the innocent do not.

“They need the same kind of services that anyone coming out of prison without a work history, without the opportunity to build up savings, without job skills that are applicable in a broad spectrum of industry,” said Dina Grove, an attorney with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.  “While some exonerees are lucky to have friends and family who can support them, many aren’t that fortunate.  Often, a lot of resources are exhausted in the effort of trying to free that person.”

The advantage of the Greenleaf bill, advocates say, is that it takes into account non-monetary remedies.

“It’s not just about the money, it’s about the restoration to society,” said Marissa Bluestine [4], legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project.  “Making sure the record is expunged, treatment, therapy, all sorts of things people being released to society need.  Family reunification issues.”

With all that, supporters argue the bill would actually be a bargain for the state.

“This will save money in the long run because it lays out how much someone is entitled to and also would limit their suit to this procedure,” Greenleaf said.  

In search of innocence

Michael Rushwood, president and CEO of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation [5], argues that the push to guarantee compensation should be tempered with caution.

“It is valuable to have not just automatic compensation,” Rushwood told Watchdog.  “It does need to be reviewed to determine if the basis for overturning the conviction is proof of innocence.”

Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association [6], seconded Rushwood.

“Our position is that they would have to establish actual innocence, what we call ‘factual innocence’ that the individual did not commit the crime nor did they engage in the conduct that gave rise to the charge,” Long told Watchdog.  “It’s not that there was a procedural issue — they have to actually not have committed the conduct for us to be in the neighborhood on this issue.”

Rushwood agrees that people who have truly been railroaded by the justice system deserve compensation, but argues that statistics about exoneration rates can be misleading.

“A lot of advocates for alternative sentencing try to convince us that everyone [who was exonerated] didn’t do the crime, but a lot of sentences are overturned on technicalities,” he told Watchdog.

And Grove notes that it’s not a requirement for the state to be a bad actor for a miscarriage of justice to take place.

“The top reasons that people are wrongfully convicted are eyewitness misidentification, unreliable scientific testimony that was accepted at the time, ineffective counsel, jailhouse informants who lie in order to get preferential treatment for themselves,” she said.  “In those situations, there’s not really a state actor who’s done something wrong.”

Rushwood offered up California as a model for how compensation reform could be approached.

In California freed inmates who have been wrongfully convicted are awarded $100 for each day of imprisonment. But all cases are submitted to a three-person panel that considers if the conviction was overthrown because of evidence of innocence or due to procedural errors and “technicalities” — often prosecutor-speak for violations of constitutional rights.

“I would consider it valuable to have at least one prosecutor on any panel, as opposed to just three anti-sentencing advocates,” Rushwood added.  “That way you’re not just giving money away.”

Long added that discussions about post-exoneration compensation overlook an existing claims process that allows for civil action by any person deprived of constitutionally protected rights.  .

“There are 1983 actions available in the federal court that do provide a mechanism for these type of situations.”  Long is referring to Section 1983 [7], which allows for civil action by any person deprived of constitutionally protected rights.  

The recently freed Wright is pursuing a Section 1983 civil suit, but the process can be time consuming. 

“For somebody walking out of prison who needs an apartment and food, it’s not a lot of help that maybe in three or four years you’ll win a lawsuit,” Grove said.

And then there’s the matter of simple justice.

“When the government takes someone’s property, they’re obligated to pay for it,” Grove said. “This is about so much more. It’s about taking someone’s liberty, their freedom, for years.”

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