An innocent Texas man was convicted of rape and robbery and served 30 years in prison before his conviction was overturned. The state paid him $2.4 million in compensation plus annuities of $13,000 per month.
Five years later, this time in Wisconsin, another innocent man was convicted of homicide. He served 23 years in prison before he was exonerated by DNA tests. But a Wisconsin claims board awarded him just $25,000, the maximum allowed under state law.
The compensation gap highlights the disparity between how different states help the wrongfully convicted get a fresh start.
Texas, Tennessee and Florida offer million-dollar payouts, while others limit payouts to a mere $25,000 or less. And others offer no compensation at all.
Activists who fight for the wrongfully convicted, as well as the innocent people who have received payouts, say it’s time for lawmakers across the nation to acknowledge their obligations to innocent convicts by awarding them enough money help them regain their lost lives.
Robert Lee Stinson was 21 when he was convicted in the 1984 slaying of a Milwaukee woman whose nearly naked body was found bloody and beaten in an alley near her home. He was arrested the next morning because police said he couldn’t adequately explain his whereabouts at the time of the crime.
At trial a forensic dentist inexplicably determined that Stinson’s bite matched those on the victim. The testimony ignored the fact that Stinson was missing a tooth where the bite marks indicated a tooth should have been, and he had an intact one where the perpetrator didn’t.
Stinson served 23 years of a life sentence before his conviction was overturned. He asked the state claims board for $115,000, or $5,000 for every year behind bars. Wisconsin law allows for a maximum of $5,000 per year up to $25,000, although the board can choose to ask the Legislature for more.
The board awarded the full $25,000 and recommended that state lawmakers give him the other $90,000.
“That’s not nearly enough to compensate me for spending 23 years in prison,” Stinson, 48, said at the time. “But it will really help me purchase a vehicle and pay for tuition.”
A Democratic lawmaker proposed a measure last year to give him the extra money but it went nowhere in the Legislature’s budget committee.
Other Wisconsin cases have also raised eyebrows. In one case another Milwaukee man wrongfully convicted of homicide before being cleared by DNA testing also got $25,000 for his six years in prison.
And in 2011 a Duluth, Minn., man who was incarcerated in Wisconsin sought $3.7 million for the 10 years he served for child sexual assault before the alleged victim recanted. He got the same $25,000, even though he said he had post-traumatic stress syndrome from the rapes and beatings he suffered at the hands of other inmates who reserved their harshest abuse for convicted child molesters.
“They paid more than that for me to be in prison all those years,” Rommain Steven Isham said, his voice cracking. ”I have nothing. All the good years were taken away from me. No job. No friends. My mind’s a little messed up.”
While $25,000 might not sound like much, 23 states don’t even offer that. They have no statutes regarding compensating the wrongly convicted, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In those cases, exonerated people can petition for individual relief but they shouldn’t expect much, said Stephen Saloom, the policy director for the New York-based Innocence Project.
Payouts in the other 27 states vary widely. At the low end are states like California, which offers a maximum of $10,000 regardless of the length of incarceration. New Hampshire caps compensation awards at $20,000.
One of the most generous states is Texas. A wrongfully convicted person there is entitled to $80,000 per year, plus other fees and services. That’s how Cornelius Dupree got $2.4 million for the 30 years he served after he was cleared of rape and robbery in 2011.
Even though his payout means he doesn’t need a job, Dupree said money can never replace lost life. He was picked up when he was 19, and was 51 when he was freed.
“It’s a lot of money, but when you look at the damage done – I lost my mom, lost my dad, I didn’t have any kids – I lost my youth. All my nieces and nephews were born – they don’t even know me,” Dupree said from his home in Tumball, Texas. “You’re talking about 30 years of being dehumanized, being neglected. How do you put a price on that?”
The Innocence Project, which works to clear the wrongfully convicted, says it would like to see every state match the federal policy: up to $50,000 for each year of compensation, plus another $50,000 for each year on death row.
Saloom acknowledged that state budgets are tight, and that increased payouts to the exonerated could mean less money for other items in the budget. But he said $50,000 per year was a fair compromise.
“We use the $50,000 as a model number because it attempts to balance fiscal concerns with the reality of what wrongful conviction and incarceration does to any individual’s life,” he said.
Saloom said a number of states have begun re-evaluating their compensation policies, a development he finds heartening. He credited the fact that people of all political stripes sympathize with innocent prisoners whose lives slip away while they’re behind bars.
“People just feel horrible for anyone who went through that situation,” Saloom said. “Everyone agrees on that. It’s not a partisan question.”