Imprisoning men later found to be not guilty has resulted in six Georgia men getting $5.8 million from taxpayers since 2000, and experts say more inmates have legitimate claims for additional compensation.
These men had been convicted on the testimony of eyewitnesses -- and one pleaded guilty in hopes of a lighter sentence when the judge blocked a defense witness from coming before the jury. All were eventually cleared by DNA tests that proved someone else had committed the crimes.
They were behind bars from 12-28 years, and the amount of compensation and rules attached were different for each. Now, House Speaker David Ralston has appointed a committee of legislators to study the issue and make recommendations on how to fairly compensate anyone exonerated in the future.
None of these six men claimed that police or prosecutors were to blame, although the appeals courts are full of such cases. And they didn’t complain that they had a bad lawyer, another frequent basis for appeals.
“It is a prosecutor’s worst nightmare to get a notification that you have got a wrongful conviction,” said Todd Ashley, deputy director of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia.
So, if the government wasn’t at fault, why did the judicial system fail them?
Most people take comfort in believing that they could prove their innocence if someone wrongly accused them. But it’s not always easy; how do you prove you didn’t assault someone who swears in court that you did?
“We all operate from our own point of reference. It makes it hard when we can’t visualize it happening to us,” said Rep. Carolyn Hugely, D-Columbus, chair of the committee.
Witnesses can be mistaken, even victims who had prolonged, up-close contact with the perpetrator. Studies show that people in traumatic situations often remember details incorrectly or don’t remember them at all.
“It’s especially true of victims. Victims, by their very nature, were subjected to some horrible crimes,” said Jessica D. Gabel, associate professor at the Georgia State University College of Law. “In the law, we give them as much credibility as we can because they were subjected to a crime, which was the gold standard.”
Witnesses can subconsciously fill in sketchy recollections with inadvertent suggestions from police in the way they handle lineups of suspects. Registering facial features in people of a different race is another well-documented weakness -- what researchers call the “they all look alike to me” phenomenon.
“That’s where the danger is because we tend to put a high value on witness-identification testimony,” Gabel said.
What about the man who pleaded guilty? Court insiders acknowledge the pressure within the judicial system to accept plea bargains, which 95 percent of defendants do, because conducting trials for them all is too costly and time consuming.
“It seems dishonest when you look at the criminal justice system to say that innocent people don’t plead guilty,” said Aimee Maxwell, executive director of the Georgia Innocence Project.
Righting the wrong isn’t simple either.
If they are just released from prison, they wind up with less support than if they had served out their sentence or gotten paroled. There is not even any provision for bus fare home like other ex-cons get.
In Texas, those wrongfully convicted get counseling, health care and scholarships to technical colleges, but not in Georgia. They don’t even get the false conviction automatically wiped off their records, increasing the difficulty in finding employment, besides the fact that prison job skills aren’t generally in high demand in the larger economy.
Adding to that difficulty further is the fact that they’ve been out of society for a decade or more.
“That’s really the hardest part of their life, trying to figure out how to build their life,” Maxwell said. “They’re like Rip Van Winkle. Forget cell phones. They don’t know how to use cordless phones. They don’t know how to pump gas.”
That’s why she recommends the state distribute compensation to them monthly rather than yearly or in one lump sum which they would have to manage with no preparation.
It’s also one reason the amounts are so high. The six received total compensation ranging from $400,000 to $1.2 million. It’s to cover medical expenses, Social Security and Medicare benefits that were never earned and decades of missed income.
Maxwell said that’s really a bargain for taxpayers because an economist the Innocence Project hired calculated their actual compensation due at around $3 million apiece. If someone exonerated filed suit, a jury could award much more.
Other states and the federal government merely pay $50,000 for each year of undeserved imprisonment. Georgia lawmakers used the same process for some of the six getting compensation, but the General Assembly can do whatever it wants.
In the case of three of the men, Georgia lawmakers said the money flow ends if the men are convicted of any crime, are unemployed or fail a drug test. So, instead of providing counseling and training to succeed outside of prison, the compensation legislation provides penalties for failure.
“A lot of it depends on who the Appropriations chair is, and a lot of depends on what the people who are in the legislature feel about wrongful convictions,” Hugley said.
The committee she chairs holds two more meetings, seeking input from other states as well as legal and financial experts. It will make a recommendation to the General Assembly in January on how future compensation should be structured.
Because DNA wasn’t collected 30 years ago, older prisoners are unlikely to have the evidence to submit to analysis. And those convicted recently have benefitted from today’s sophisticated technology that makes it more difficult to convict an innocent man in the first place.
So, the number of men likely to be exonerated is probably just a handful, although there have been more than 40 just from Dallas, Texas, because the DNA evidence was kept on file there.
Advocates look at the number of inmates freed with DNA and wonder how many others are also not guilty of the crimes they were convicted of but have no scientific way to prove it. At least with current technology.