How do they figure out compensation for people who were wrongly convicted?

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May 18 2007 3:08 PM

18 Years in Prison? Priceless.

How do they figure the payouts for people who were wrongly convicted?

James C. Tillman. Click image to expand.
James C. Tillman was wrongfully convicted and spent 18 years in prison

On Wednesday, Connecticut lawmakers voted to award $5 million to a man who had served an 18-year prison sentence for a rape he didn't commit. How did they decide how much compensation he deserved?

They winged it. Only 21 states have compensation laws on the books, which spell out exactly how much you get for a wrongful conviction. Louisiana, for example, ponies up $15,000 for each year of incarceration, plus job training and help with college tuition. Alabama pays at least $50,000 a year, and California pays $100 per day. Meanwhile, the federal government forks over $50,000 for each year of incarceration for federal crimes, plus $50,000 for each year spent on death row.

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In Connecticut, which is among the 29 states without compensation statutes, ex-prisoners must lobby the legislature to pass a private bill that grants compensation to a specific person. Here, the dollar amount loosely depends on what payments the state has made in the past. The number should account for the victim's lost time, lost wages, and physical and mental suffering, as well as the effects on his or her family. Private bills are behind some of the multimillion-dollar rewards that make the headlines, but the payouts don't always go off without a hitch. Florida, for instance, initially planned to award $1.25 million to Alan Crotzer for serving more than 24 years after being convicted of armed robbery and rape, but ultimately dropped the payment from its budget, instead giving $4.8 million to the parents of a teen who had died in juvie boot camp. (You can keep tabs on awards by reading Justice: Denied, "the magazine for the wrongly convicted.")

If a private bill gets rejected, or if the state doles out a pittance for decades spent in jail, ex-prisoners can also file a civil lawsuit for violation of their constitutional rights. Here, plaintiffs commonly seek $1 million for each year served. But to prove their case, exonerees have to prove deliberate misconduct—not just negligence—by officials. Last year, a federal jury gave $9 million to Alejandro Dominguez, an Illinois resident who served four years after he was pronounced guilty of rape at the age of 16. Dominguez won because the police pushed the victim to identify him even though he didn't match the description of the attacker. The same year, Chicago agreed to pay $9 million to LaFonso Rollins, who was coerced by police to sign a confession stating that he had raped an elderly woman. Rollins, who served 11 years, said he was treated more harshly by other prisoners because of the charge.

In states with statutory rewards, the value of the payout has little to do with the nature of the crime. In some cases, the length of time served doesn't make much of a difference, either. New Hampshire's law doesn't prescribe a yearly rate, and it limits compensation to $20,000. Massachusetts has no yearly rate, either, but eight of its nine exonerees as of last month received the maximum sum of $500,000—including one who had served four years and another who served 19. Life is cheaper in Illinois, which wrote a check for $138,000 to Dana Holland, who was locked up for 10 years, and gave a scant $161,000 to Michael Evans, an Illinois man who spent 27 years behind bars before being cleared of wrongdoing. Evans then filed a $60 million lawsuit against 10 Chicago police officers, but a jury rejected his claims.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer. 

Explainer thanks Rebecca Brown and Stephen Saloom of The Innocence Project, Karen Daniel of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, and Stanley Z. Fisher of Boston University School of Law.

Michelle Tsai is a Beijing-based writer working on a book about Chinatowns on six continents. She blogs at ChinatownStories.com.

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