Compensation Has Strings for the Wrongly Convicted

October 29, 2010

Victor Burnette spent eight years in a Virginia prison for a rape he didn’t commit and nearly 30 years trying to clear his name.

Now he says he may not accept $226,000 that the state offered as compensation because, at 57, he’s unhappy the payments will be spread over 25 years and will stop if he’s ever convicted of a felony.

“To me they are treating me like a criminal still, which I’m not,” said Burnette, a housepainter and handyman who has yet to claim a $45,213 check written in August.

Most of the 27 states that compensate the wrongly convicted for their time in prison impose conditions like those in Virginia. Other states offer no compensation at all.

Republican state Sen. Frederick M. Quayle, who sponsored the 2004 bill to create Virginia’s compensation law, said the state doesn’t owe anything to those wrongly convicted of a crime.

“It is simply out of the goodness of General Assembly’s heart that they felt a moral duty to compensate them some way for the time they spent in prison,” he said.

Pace University law professor Adele Bernhard, who has studied how states compensate the wrongfully convicted, said the way states have structured such laws reflects a “residual distrust” of exonerated prisoners.

“I think that people are hesitant to give you an award because there is an underlying queasiness about whether you’re really innocent or not, even when it was as plain as day that it wasn’t your semen in the rape victim,” she said.

Burnette was convicted in 1979 for breaking into a Richmond woman’s apartment and raping her. At the time, forensic scientists testified that evidence found at the apartment was “consistent with an individual of the characteristics similar” to Burnette. Technology available at the time could not eliminate Burnette as a suspect.

Despite maintaining his innocence, Burnette was convicted. While in prison he lost the hearing in his left ear after being attacked by three inmates.

“I lost eight years of my life in prison, five years on parole, and for 30 years my name was just totally screwed up,” he said. “For 30 years I was a rapist.”

A 2006 DNA test excluded Burnette as a suspect.

It took another three years to gain a pardon from then-Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.

Virginia lawmakers approved Burnette’s $226,065 compensation agreement in April after his attorney requested it.

Burnette said he’s been tempted to sign the papers and take the $45,000 check, but then he said he finds a way to get by without it.

“To me $45,000 is more money than I ever had in my entire life at one point,” he said. “For what I went through, though, that’s just really a very sad amount of money.”

State compensation laws vary widely. Texas offers the biggest payment to the wrongfully convicted: $80,000 per year for each year of incarceration and $25,000 for each year on parole or registered as a sex offender. Montana’s law bans monetary compensation but allows for education assistance. The federal government pays $50,000 per year.

Like Virginia, Alabama stops payment if an individual is convicted of a felony. In Florida, a prior felony prohibits someone from receiving money. In Missouri and Montana, only those exonerated through DNA evidence are eligible for a payout.

Quayle, the Virginia state senator, said lawmakers in his state set up the payment in installments to help the individuals manage the windfall, “rather than run the risk of them squandering all of the money.” He said Burnette should take his payout if he wants anything at all.

Burnette, however, said he’ll hold out to see if he can persuade someone to change the law.

“I think about how much I went through for that and it’s really not worth it,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, they should make my next eight years fantastic for what they did for me.”

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