How much should a state be required to pay a person it wrongfully convicts and keeps in prison for 43 years?
The State of Florida wrongfully convicted Nathan Meyers and his uncle, Clifford Williams, for a 1976 murder they did not commit. The convictions of both men were overturned in March 2019 following a year-long investigation by the Jacksonville State Attorney Office’s “conviction integrity” unit.
That review, according to ABC News, “found significant problems with the original case, including dozens of alibi witnesses and forensic evidence that would have shattered the original case. Ballistics evidence showed the shooting couldn’t have happened the way the sole eyewitness said it did. Four witnesses said a different person confessed, and evidence connected that person to the scene.”
Circuit Judges Angela Cox and Meredith Charbula, Special Masters for both the Florida House and Senate, and an independent review panel agreed with the Jacksonville prosecutor’s office that the two men were wrongfully convicted.
Meyers’ attorney petitioned the trial court for compensation under the state’s Victims of Wrongful Incarceration Act (VWIA). The court granted the petition last year; however, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office vetoed the court order saying there was “no evidence” of “actual innocence” in the case.
Florida Vetoes Award After Innocent Men Spend 43 Years in Prison
In a startling about face sparked by public outrage, the Attorney General’s Department of Legal Affairs (DLA) recently announced that the decision to veto compensation was wrong and that it had approved the maximum $2 million reparation award to Nathan Meyers. The AG’s office said it could not approve the same award for Clifford Williams because he had two prior criminal convictions; however, a bill is moving through both the Florida House and Senate to approve a similar award for Williams.
Speaking for the DLA, Richard H. Martin wrote that, “The DLA cannot second-guess decisions made by the courts [since VWIA] does not permit the DLA to reject an application due to procedural or evidentiary concerns with a court finding …”
Meyers will get his money as will Williams.
But why should individuals who have spent decades in prison for crimes they did not commit have to go through so many unnecessary hoops just to secure compensation for the official wrong done to them?
Thirty-three states and the federal government now offer compensation to individuals wrongfully convicted for crimes they did not commit. The payout amounts differ widely. Take for example Louisiana. That state, which has earned its “banana republic” reputation in so many ways, pays out a maximum of $250,000 over a ten-year period ($25,000 a year).
According to an April 2019 ABC News report, that means Malcolm Alexander received just $6,580 per year for the 38 years he spent in the Louisiana State Penitentiary before being exonerated in January 2018.
States Debate Cost in Spite of Reality of Wrongful Incarcertion
Texas, on the other hand, offers one of the best wrongful conviction compensation packages in the nation, according to the ABC News report: $80,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment plus an annuity; financial assistance for some social reintegration services; some legal fees; and missed child support payments.
Robert Norris, the author of “Exonerated,” is an assistant professor of criminology law and society. He told ABC News’ Meghan Keneally that there is a moral and political struggle as state lawmakers wrestle with the issue of compensating those wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit.
“The biggest argument I’ve ever heard [against compensation laws] is the financial costs,” Norris told Keneally, “but if you have any faith in your system, then that really shouldn’t be an issue. Ultimately we’re trying to put a value on years people lost, and so there’s a question of ‘is any amount of money ultimately adequate or enough? And where is that line ultimately?’”
At the end of the day, some states, like Louisiana, believe the value of their state coffers is more important than the suffering it inflicts on those wrongfully convicted. For example, Mississippi and Nebraska cap their maximum payout to the wrongfully convicted at $500,000 while New Hampshire has a $20,000 cap and Wisconsin has a $25,000 cap.
Insult to Injury
To add the proverbial “insult to injury,” George Washington University Law School professor Jeff Gutman told Keneally that in the 17 states that do not have wrongful conviction compensation laws, exonerated individuals in most instances must show that some state actor (like the prosecutor or police) engaged in “constitutional misconduct” before they can secure a damage award in a federal civil rights lawsuit for wrongful conviction/imprisonment.
Even if a wrongfully convicted person establishes constitutional misconduct, the state actor may well avoid civil damage liability under absolute and qualified immunity doctrines.
Innocent individuals convicted either through innocent official error or deliberate constitutional misconduct should be awarded substantial damages packages. If the federal government can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on Defense Department “bird watching,” U.S. National Institutes of Health studying Russian smoking habits, Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying whether the media cause “polarization,” or the National Science Foundation studying why politics “stress” people out, then individuals who spend decades in some of the nation’s worst prisons for crimes they did not commit should be awarded fair compensation.
God save us if government considers Russian smoking habits more important than decades of wrongful conviction and imprisonment.