Imprisonment for a crime that one didn’t commit is a horrible reality for some. Fortunately, there are circumstances where the truth becomes known and the innocent party is set free. The question of what happens after that is more vexed. Two men in North Carolina were able to find at least some measure of financial justice as restitution for false imprisonment.
In 1983, Lee Brown and Henry McCollum were convicted for the murder and sexual assault of Sabrina Bue. The two defendants, aged 19 and 15 at the time, confessed to the crime. However, their attorney, Desmond Hogan, said the confessions were coerced. It took over 30 years, but DNA evidence found in 2014 finally acquitted Brown and McCollum.
Two separate lawsuits, filed against both the justice system itself and the investigating officers, ended up with $80 million in damages being awarded to the 2 men.
The $80 million, substantial a sum as it may be, can’t make up for what Brown and McCollum lived through. Others who have been wrongly imprisoned wind up with far less.
Twenty-one states offer no legal guarantee of compensation for a victim of wrongful imprisonment. “It seems incredible to me that there could be an argument against it (compensation),” said attorney Bruce Barket. Barket had represented Marty Tankleff, who spent 17 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit before exoneration came.
What’s more, of the 29 states that do have compensation programs, there are different rules that make collection difficult. A prime example is that a person who confesses or pleads guilty to a crime they didn’t commit is often barred from receiving compensation.
It’s certainly natural to wonder why an innocent person would ever confess or plead guilty. The reality is we don’t know what levels of deception or intimidation were used to entice the guilty plea. And it’s more common than we may realize—The Innocence Project reports that nearly one-third of wrongful convictions involve a confession.
False confessions are 1 of the 5 most common factors driving wrongful convictions. The others are official misconduct, untrustworthy informants, poor eyewitness accounts and bad forensic work.
How then, should states compensate those who are exonerated of a crime? Certainly there can be no monetary value placed on time lost with family and friends, the loss of reputation and the terrible experience of being in prison itself. Just as certainly, the state has to do more than say “sorry.”
The Innocence Project recommends the following:
- $50,000 for every year in prison. On average, those who have been wrongfully convicted spend a little more than 14 years in jail. That would add up to an average $700,000 restitution payout.
- Reimbursement of all lawyer fees incurred during the trial.
- Mental health services, medical and dental care and immediate access to housing and education.
- An immediate clearing of the person’s criminal record. This might seem obvious, but those who have started their lives over report having to bring newspaper clippings of their exoneration to places like apartment rentals in order to prove that their criminal record is outdated.
Great novels and movies have been made about the wrongfully convicted person who gets out of jail and successfully starts anew. However, the typical victim won’t stumble onto a vast treasure of gold, like Edmund Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo. Not everyone will blow town with $370,000 of the corrupt warden’s money, like Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption. In the real world, people need concrete help in getting back on their feet.
Restitution programs place that burden on the institution that caused the problem in the first place—the government that got the wrong person for the crime.