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Georgia Law is Lacking in Compensation for the Wrongfully Convicted

September 24, 2012

Under a Florida statute passed in 2008, individuals wrongfully convicted in Florida state courts can collect financial compensation for each year of unlawful incarceration.

These individuals, referred to as “exonerees”, may receive $50,000 for each year in prison not to exceed $2 million.

Three exonerees have collected under this law since its enactment. In July, Luis Diaz-Martinez received nearly $1.3 million after spending 26 years in prison. He was exonerated by DNA testing in 2005. James Bain received $1.75 million in 2011 for the 35 years he spent in prison. He was also exonerated by DNA evidence in 2009. Leroy McGee received $179,167 in 2010. He was exonerated after spending over 3 ½ years in prison and after a trial judge disbarred his defense attorney for failing to present evidence proving his innocence.

Despite these successes, many more Florida exonerees are not likely to receive compensation. The state’s wrongful conviction compensation statute also includes a “clean hands” provision that excludes those who have prior felonies on their record or committed crimes while in prison. Seth Miller, the executive director of The Innocence Project of Florida, laments that six out of 13 people his organization recognizes as exonerated by DNA evidence since 2003 do not qualify for compensation due to this statutory exclusion. Miller is not sure the Florida legislature will be able to drum up support to repeal or modify this exclusion despite multiple attempts to do so over the last few years.

In addition to the wrongful conviction statute, exonerees have received compensation via other avenues. One Florida exoneree obtained a monetary settlement from local authorities. Three others, two of whom were disqualified from the compensation law under the “clean hands” provision, were compensated when the Florida legislature passed private claims bills.

According to The Innocence Project, 27 states (and the District of Columbia) currently have some form of compensation statute for the wrongfully convicted. Also, under the federal Innocence Protection Act, passed in 2004, those wrongfully convicted in a federal court can receive $50,000 per year of imprisonment for non-capital cases and $100,000 per year of imprisonment for capital cases.

Georgia is among those states without a compensation statute. The Innocent Persons’ Compensation Act was proposed in 2005 but failed to get passed by the state legislature. In 2005, however, Governor Sonny Perdue signed a house resolution to compensate exoneree Clarence Harrison for the nearly 18 years he spent in prison. According to the resolution, Harrison will receive $1 million between 2005 and 2025. Two other similar resolutions have been passed in Georgia for select exonerees.

Georgia defense attorneys, the most vocal proponents of wrongful conviction compensation, do not believe that these efforts can replace the years of life taken as a result of a wrongful conviction. However, compensation statutes serve as both a public acknowledgement of government error and a genuine effort to help restore some of the resulting damage.

As technological advances increase the potential to exonerate wrongfully accused individuals via DNA evidence, the need to compensate those individuals will continue to grow. Some advocates feel that money is not enough. Many strive for the immediate provision of services such as housing, employment, transportation, and medical care. Not only do wrongfully convicted individuals need to be compensated for what they lost, they also need assistance in re-joining a community they may have been removed from for decades. According to many advocates, this is what justice demands.

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