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The Price of Prison Time: States Pay-Out for Post-Conviction Exonerations

George Lavender

There have been a spate of high-profile exonerations this year. Gabrielle Emanuel at NPR’s Planet Money examines the amounts that states pay-out when someone spends time in prison for a crime they are later found not to have committed. 

Twenty-one states provide no money — though people who are exonerated can sue for damages. Twelve states and DC award damages on a case-by-case basis. Another seventeen states pay a fixed amount per year of imprisonment.

And among states that pay a fixed amount per year, there’s a huge range of payments.

Several states and the federal government offer $50,000 per year for people wrongly convicted in federal court. Why is that such a common figure?

Federal payments were set by a law passed a decade ago. At that time, Alabama had the highest compensation at $50,000 per year, so the feds simply decided to match that, according to Stephen Saloom, policy director at the Innocence Project. Other states may have followed the lead of the federal government.

According to the Innocence Project there have been 316 post-conviction DNA exonerations in US history including 18 people who had been sentenced to death.

State’s may actually be trying to save money by paying-out compensation, according to Brandon Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor quoted by Planet Money. By accepting the compensation exonerated prisoners give up the right to sue for damages. The Times Record News reports that last week, an Oklahoma man, who was cleared of criminal wrongdoing after 16 years in prison on the basis of DNA evidence, filed a lawsuit against the city of Tulsa. Planet Money lists Oklahoma among the states that compensates prisoners on a case-by-case basis. 

Sedrick Courtney argued in his lawsuit filed Monday that city officials used manufactured evidence to convict him of robbery and burglary — then obstructed his efforts at exoneration. Courtney was released from prison on parole in 2011 and his conviction was later vacated.

Sedrick is looking forward to proving that his wrongful conviction was not an unfortunate accident but was caused by police misconduct,” said Emma Freudenberger, a New York City-based attorney who is representing Courtney.

Courtney had been sentenced to 60 years in prison for a 1996 robbery at a Tulsa apartment, where two masked intruders robbed a woman. At trial, prosecutors showed forensic tests that they said linked Courtney to hairs recovered from a ski mask believed to have been used in the crime. In 2011, subsequent DNA testing excluded Courtney as a possible source of the hairs, court filings said. Continue reading…

DNA evidence is just one way that people sentenced to prison are exonerated. This year there have also been several cases in which prosecutorial and police misconduct or mistakes are alleged to have played a role in the original conviction. Jonathan Fleming was released in April after 24 years in prison for murder. Evidence that proved he was in another state at the time of the murder was found to have been in the hands of law enforcement all along. Earlier this month, Roger Logan was also freed, after spending nearly 17 years in prison. It emerged a key witness who testified that she had seen him shortly before the murder, had actually been in police custody at the time. According to the New York Daily News, Logan’s case brings the number of people cleared of old homicide convictions in New York this year alone to seven. 

George Lavender is an award-winning radio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @GeorgeLavender.
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