Not Every Exonerated Man Gets Repaid

ByABC News
August 6, 2002, 5:20 PM

Aug. 8 -- After serving 18 years of a life sentence for a rape he did not commit, Larry Johnson walked out of a Missouri prison last week and flew home across the state to St. Louis, courtesy of state officials.

"This is all I want. This is all I need," the 48-year-old Johnson said as he hugged his mother at the St. Louis airport.

As it turns out, that may be all he's going to get.

"They open the jail door and say 'Sorry, see you,'" said Johnson's St. Louis attorney C. John Pleban.

Now that Johnson paid a debt to society that was not actually his to pay, he, like many wrongfully convicted men, must grapple with the truth that society may not owe him anything in return, at least not under the law. If Johnson receives any restitution, it may only come after long and hard-fought legal and political battles.

Indeed, few innocent men freed from prison receive money for their trouble. Of the 109 released due to DNA evidence with help from the Innocence Project, only 12 have received reparations.

Unfortunately for Johnson, Missouri has no statute guaranteeing compensation for the wrongfully convicted only 15 states and the District of Columbia do. Of those laws, many are antiquated, difficult to access and offer relatively low monetary awards.

Even in our litigious society, most exonerees cannot depend on big money verdicts, either. There are exceptions: In high-profile wrongful conviction settlements in Illinois, seven exonerated men have won nearly $40 million since 1998 after alleging prosecutorial and police misconduct.

For many exonerees, though, there is no one to sue.

"Wrongful conviction cases are lots of times just unfortunate accidents," said Adele Bernhard, a law professor at Pace University who specializes in compensation statutes.

Even Wrongly Condemned Face Rigmarole

Making matters more complicated, prosecutors and law enforcement officials often are immune from lawsuits under both state and federal law as long as they were doing their jobs.