December 2, 2007
By Fernanda Santos and Janet Roberts, The New York Times
William Gregory and David Pope were both convicted of rape. Mr. Gregory served seven years in a Kentucky prison and Mr. Pope was imprisoned by Texas for 15 years before being released because of new DNA evidence.
Mr. Gregory, 59, now lives at the edge of a golf course, in a five-bedroom house he bought with part of the $4.6 million he received in legal settlements. Mr. Pope, 46, received $385,000 from the State of Texas.
To the extent that they got money, they are among the lucky ones. Of the more than 200 people released from prison since 1989 on the basis of new DNA evidence, 38 percent have received nothing for the years they spent behind bars.
What are those lost years worth?
States have been wrestling with that question in recent years as the DNA revolution upended long-held notions about the reliability of evidence. And a new question has also emerged: Is money alone enough?
With more than 140 exonerated prisoners released since 2000, 22 states and the District of Columbia now compensate them using formulas ranging from lump sums to calculations of lost wages.
But the amounts vary widely. Wisconsin provides $5,000 a year up to a maximum of $25,000 total. California offers $100 a day. Tennessee provides up to $1 million total.
Twenty-eight states offer nothing — including states with multiple cases of discredited convictions — forcing former inmates to sue in state or federal court. There they have the difficult task of proving bad faith or intentional misconduct by authorities. But when they succeed, as Mr. Gregory did, the payouts can be substantial.
Joshua Marquis, the district attorney in Clatsop County, Ore., has argued that many exonerated prisoners may not be innocent, but have been released because there was not enough evidence to retry them after DNA tests raised questions about their convictions. But in instances where clearly innocent people have been convicted, he said, “they are owed a tremendous amount.”
Some states do not have compensation laws, a result of budget constraints, other priorities, and, in some cases, suspicions that some exonerated prisoners may actually be guilty. This has left many with the courts as their only source of redress.
“Once you open up those floodgates, where do you get all the money to pay for these falsely charged people?” asked state Rep. Thomas R. Caltagirone of Pennsylvania, co-chairman of that state’s House Judiciary Committee, where a compensation bill recently stalled. “How much money is it going to require? How much is a person worth?”
Nine people in Pennsylvania have been freed on the strength of DNA evidence after spending an average of 14 years in prison. But, said Representative Caltagirone, a Democrat, “there is no political will to push it forward.”
In Florida, where six people have been freed, lawmakers have battled for three years over a compensation plan that would exclude those with prior criminal histories.
“I believe the taxpayer would be horribly offended if their money were to be spent compensating an exonerated prisoner who has a history of serious crimes,” said State Representative Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Republican.
Stan V. Smith, a forensic economist and expert on compensation for loss of life, said that in some respects, the wrongly convicted may actually suffer a loss greater than death.
“It’s not just the years they lost and the mental anguish of being incarcerated wrongfully.” Mr. Smith said. “Your earnings are going to be impaired forever, your social interactions are going to be impaired forever. It’s like being thrown into a time warp.”
As the extent of those impairments has become clearer, exonerated prisoners and their advocates now argue that more than compensation is required.
“One of the biggest challenges is that once an innocent person comes out of prison, they are not equipped with the tools to reintegrate into society, and that’s something that money alone can’t solve,” said Representative Donald M. Payne, a New Jersey Democrat who introduced a bill to set aside $1.25 million a year for programs for exonerated prisoners.
Of the states with compensation laws, only three — Massachusetts, Louisiana and Vermont — provide for the costs of medical and psychological care.
Most of the exonerated who get money waited two to three years, forcing them to rely on family, friends, lawyers and even strangers for shelter, clothing, food and emotional support immediately after their release.
Some of those needs persist even for those who have been paid. Despite the millions he received, Mr. Gregory says he still suffers from bouts of paranoia and sometimes breaks down. Mr. Pope’s $385,000 is long gone, spent on rent, clothes and a new car. Last summer, he was unemployed and living with his mother.
In an extensive look this summer and fall at what had happened to 137 exonerated prisoners after their release, The New York Times found about half of them struggling — drifting from job to job, dependent on others for housing or battling deep emotional scars. More than two dozen ended up back in prison or addicted to drugs or alcohol.
“Some people feel, ‘All right, it’s over now. You’re out, you’re free, so what are you complaining about? What’s the problem?’ ” said Darryl Hunt, exonerated in North Carolina after serving 18 years for murder.
“The problem is that we’re free physically,” he said. “But mentally, we’re still living the nightmare every day.”
Mr. Hunt, 42, used some of the $2 million he received to start a program that has offered such services as education, counseling, job training and housing assistance to about 400 ex-convicts, including some exonerated prisoners.
Several similar initiatives have sprouted nationwide, but all have struggled to secure funding; also, they often fail to tap into existing services. California is weighing a plan that would do just that by providing services already made available to paroled prisoners, including educational aid, vocational training and counseling, among others.
In New York, a bill has been drafted that would allow the wrongly convicted to receive services from agencies that already serve other needy populations, such as families on welfare.
“We’re really still learning how to best make these people whole,” said Stephen Saloom, policy director at the Innocence Project, which has helped to exonerate many prisoners. “And the reason it has taken us so long is that we’re really just starting to accept the imperfections of our judicial system and admit that mistakes do happen.”