Not Every Exonerated Man Gets Repaid

Aug. 8, 2002 -- 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.

Wading through the morass of civil rights and tort laws in exoneration cases can take years and comprises another grueling legal journey for people already burned by the system. If, that is, the exoneree even finds a lawyer willing to take his case.

Defense lawyer Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, which handles death penalty cases, is intimately familiar with the maddening process.

In 1997, Stevenson argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that his client Walter McMillian, who wrongly spent six years on death row, should be able to sue a county sheriff who suppressed evidence in his case.

The high court ruled against him on a legal technicality, but McMillian settled with other parties in the case for an undetermined amount. At the time, Alabama did not have a compensation statute, although the McMillian case helped get a law passed there in 2001.

McMillian's case represents how frustrating the pursuit for compensation can be for exonerees in states where no laws exist for repaying them, Stevenson said. No man who has had to withstand the psychic trauma of sitting on death row should have to go through such rigmarole to get reimbursed, he said.

"The presumption should be, if you were exonerated, the state should compensate you for the time you were in prison and to help make your transition easier into the real world," he said. "I think that's something society owes someone it has deprived of the liberties we take for granted."

In Some States, Awards Only Reach $5,000

In a twisted sense, McMillian was lucky because there was proof of foul play by law enforcement officials. Larry Johnson may not be so lucky.

If Johnson's lawyers cannot dig up any evidence of a bad faith effort by prosecutors or police in his case, he will be at the mercy of state legislators who, so far, have not crafted a law designed to repay innocent men who have spent time in Missouri's prisons.

"Larry Johnson has physical needs, economic needs and he will have emotional and psychological needs," Pleban said. "As it stands right now, he is on his own."

Johnson is not alone. Of the compensation laws on the books, only a few are considered adequate by defense attorneys.

North Carolina and Wisconsin offer a maximum of $5,000 to exonerees. New Hampshire caps the award at $20,000.

On the other end of the spectrum, New York and Washington, D.C. place no cap on awards.

Even in states with indemnification laws, many exonerees face other caveats that complicate the process of receiving restitution. In some cases, having a conviction set aside by a judge is not enough — indemnification may also depend on getting a pardon by the state's governor, which can be a long and tedious process.

'Someone Has to Take Responsibility'

Aliza Kaplan, deputy director of the Innocence Project, says her group will soon begin widening its focus to include compensation for exonerees.

"All of these people deserve something for their time in prison. They need a lot more financial support and other kinds of support, too, ranging from job skills, mental health, family related issues, and depression," she said.

Kaplan's statement is not terribly controversial. There is no vocal lobby against allocating funds for wrongly convicted prisoners.

Nonetheless, legislators do not seem motivated to set aside funding until the need arises. Perhaps, because there are so few prisoners exonerated compared to the general prison population, legislators do not see urgency. Or perhaps there is an understandable reluctance to open up the state's limited coffers to what could be exorbitantly high awards.

Pleban, Johnson's lawyer, hopes his client's case will move legislators in Missouri to act on his behalf.

"Someone has to take responsibility for this. If I hit you with my car and I didn't intend to do that I might have been negligent. Just as I would have to pay you for the damage to your vehicle, someone has to bear some responsibility for this. The state of Missouri has to be responsible."