PrimeTime: Compensating the Wrongly Convicted

ByABC News

April 12, 2001 -- When Michael Graham walked off Louisiana's Death Row after 14 years — cleared of two murders he always said he did not commit — he got the same thing the guilty departing prisoners got: 10 bucks and a coat.

"Talk about a crime? That's a crime," says John Holdridge, the lawyer who saved Graham's life by proving his innocence.

Graham was convicted of the two murders when he was barely out of his teens. Fourteen years later, his lawyers proved that prosecutors relied on witnesses they had every reason to know were untruthful. Now, Holdridge is trying to help Graham get a lot more than $10 for those years. He thinks the state of Louisiana owes Graham not only money, but a another look at the death penalty.

In Texas, attorney Randy Schaeffer is fighting a similar battle for Anthony Robinson, who served 10 years in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of rape.

"Sometimes I'll wake up in the middle of the night and I have to get up and walk around to make sure I'm not still in the cage," says Robinson, who had never been in trouble with the law before.

"I had worked very hard to escape the confines of being raised in the ghetto," says Robinson, who graduated from a top college and served in the military. "You finally get out and you say, 'OK, I made it through' and then all of a sudden someone says, 'No you didn't.'"

Wrongly identified as a rapist by a white woman in 1986, his dreams vanished. It wasn't until after he had served 10 years in prison and was released that Robinson was able to prove with DNA testing that he was innocent.

Compensation Programs: How Much Is Enough?

Graham, Robinson and hundreds of others wrongly imprisoned say society has to at least try to make up the years to them — not just the years spent in a locked cell, but also the years they missed with their families, once-in-a-lifetime events that can never be recaptured.

How much were those years worth? And after so many years behind bars, their lives forever changed, should they be compensated monetarily?

"There's talk of compensation," says Robinson. "There's recognition that you've lost something. Not that we put you in a cage and released you, but you've actually lost something."

Defense attorney Barry Scheck, a pioneer in using DNA to free innocent people says that over the last 10 years, 50 innocent people have been released from death row alone. Most were set free with no compensation.

"Everybody's thinking: 'Oh, they spill hot coffee on you at McDonald's, and you can recover money. So certainly if you were wrongfully convicted and spent all these horrible years in jail, you're going to get a lot of money.' Well you don't," says Scheck.

Fourteen states do have compensation programs. For example, in North Carolina, the state will pay $10,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment up to $150,000. Wisconsin pays $5,000 a year up to $25,000. In Texas, the limit is $25,000; for Robinson that means $2,500 for every year of his life spent in prison. Robinson's lawyer, Schaeffer, thinks that sum of money is inadequate and that $500,000 would be a more reasonable sum.

"If you were locked up for the weekend wrongly, you'd probably take $25,000 to settle it," he says. "[But] if you were locked up for a decade, you certainly wouldn't take it. I guess at the time the law was enacted 35 years ago, $25,000 probably was a lot of money. But today it won't get you far."

Schaeffer has two suggestions for how to come up with a suitable compensation package. "You either have to allow a lawsuit to be filed and let a jury decide the number, as it does in virtually every other type of case," he says. "Alternatively, you'd probably have to find a number based on the amount of time served instead of a flat number that would give the same amount to somebody that wrongly served a month as opposed to somebody that wrongly served 17 years."

The money, he says, is not merely to compensate for what the person was deprived in a paycheck. "I think if you've lost the right to have a family, to go free in the world, and you're put in a cell every night and treated like a rapist, the damages for that are worth more than not being able to go to work every day from 9 to 5."

Is the State to Blame?

Louisiana state Sen. Jay Dardenne opposes the idea of legislation to compensate people for wrongful convictions and years in prison.

"A jury believed beyond a reasonable doubt that an individual should be convicted," he says, based on the evidence available at that time. So, if a ruling is later overturned because of DNA evidence that was not previously available, this "does not suggest to me that the state was somehow wrong or at fault."

Even in cases like Graham's, where prosecutors committed misconduct, Dardenne does not think taxpayers should pay. Instead, he thinks Graham should sue the prosecutor.

"There is a civil remedy in place in Louisiana against a prosecutor who takes such reprehensible action," says Dardenne. "The wrongfully incarcerated individual has a right to go to court … and seek monetary damages," he says. "If the prosecutor acted wrongly, that's where the fault should lie."

But Scheck says suing the prosecutor is a bad idea that almost never works.

"There is a very very narrow class of cases where you can succeed," he says. Such cases are rare instances where you can prove "bad faith misconduct by a police officer or a prosecutor in the investigatory stage which led to the arrest or the indictment … but everybody else who can't fit into that very narrow category, can't pass through the eye of that needle … out of luck. That's not right."

Scheck adds, "You can't sweep these people under the rug. Because their suffering is too great. Their moral lesson is going to be heard."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events