ASU Law Professor Michael Saks has been working on a project that intrigues me. He points out that on rare occasions someone who has been in prison for many years is ultimately proven to be innocent and is simply released. I assumed that the former prisoner would be able to sue the state and receive compensation. After all, Ray Krone has received two settlements totaling over $4 million to dollars.
Saks argues that not everyone who is released has a cause of action and if the person is truly innocent it's not fair to simply release them. There should be a fund to compensate them for their time behind bars.
I was pretty skeptical. First, I want to make sure the person is innocent on the FACTS, not the just the law. If someone is released because he didn't get his Miranda rights in his native Chinese, then I'm not too sympathetic.
I also wanted real-life examples. I couldn't imagine a case in which someone was really innocent and didn't have grounds for a suit. Dude, people who spill coffee on themselves or cut off their fingers trying to trim their hedge with their lawnmower manage to sue for millions of dollars. So how could an innocent man who has been locked up for a decade not be able to sue?
Then I saw his Wall St. Journal article in yesterday's paper. (It may be subscription only.)
For more than half his 43 years, Mr. Williams had lived in the infamously tough Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. He had been convicted of raping and beating his school tutor when he was 16 years old. Only his family believed him when he said he was innocent.
DNA testing finally exonerated him, and he was released in March 2005. But since then, Mr. Williams has lived in a different kind of prison. After 24 years of estrangement, he says his six brothers and sisters want nothing to do with him. He has little education, no job skills and few friends.
Hmm, maybe this really is a problem. If so, maybe we could talk to some legislators about setting up a fund that would compensate someone if he's been wrongly convicted. I think Saks suggested $100 a day capped at $350K. I know it's a tight budget year, but I don't think we are going to find dozens of these guys.
Let me know what you think.
I asked Prof. Saks for some real life Arizona examples and he sent me these cases:
A fire at Ray Girdler's home in Prescott killed his wife and daughter. Although the fire was eventually determined to be of accidental origin, and therefore no crime occurred, investigators relied on erroneous "indicators" – nothing more than arson investigator folklore – to conclude that the fire was deliberately set. Based on that faulty conclusion, in 1982 Girdler was convicted of arson and two counts of murder, and sentenced to a total of 71 years of imprisonment.
Eight years later, the same court held an 11-day-long evidentiary hearing at which actual research findings from the field of fire science were presented against the guesswork that had been offered as expert testimony in Girdler's trial. At the end of the hearing, the court vacated Girdler's conviction, but kept him in custody pending possible re-filing of charges if the Yavapai County Attorney had any evidence with which to prosecute a new trial. A few weeks later, all charges were dismissed and Girdler was released.
At that point Girdler had his freedom but nothing else: no family, no home, and no help from the government that had convicted him in error and taken from him eight years of his life. "Forty-seven dollars in my hip pocket is what I was given by the Department of Corrections. I had that and the clothes on my back," Girdler said. "I knew this minister in Casa Grande who said I could stay with him for a few days. If I hadn't known that minister, what would I have done?"
In 1983 a 10-year-old white boy was abducted from a church fair in Tucson for about 90 minutes, sexually assaulted by a middle-aged black man, and then returned. The child later identified Larry Younglbood as the perpetrator, and Youngblood was convicted of child molestation, sexual assault, and kidnaping.
Youngblood sought to have his own biological markers tested against material left by the perpetrator of the crime, in order to prove his innocence. But the Tucson Police Department's crime lab had failed to conduct the necessary tests promptly (which would have excluded Youngblood as the perpetrator) and had failed to refrigerate the evidence (so it had become impossible to do those tests). The Arizona Court of Appeals overturned Youngblood's conviction because evidence that might have exonerated Youngblood had not been properly preserved by the government. The case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court and became the landmark case of Arizona v. Youngblood (1988). The Supreme Court held that the Constitution does not require the government to preserve evidence that could prove a person's innocence. Only if the government intentionally destroyed potentially exculpatory evidence would an appellant like Youngblood be entitled to relief.
Years later, advanced DNA testing was applied to a swab from the sexual assault kit from the case. Not only did the DNA reveal that Youngblood was not the perpetrator, it also identified the actual assailant: a man who by then was in prison in Texas and who was quite similar to Youngblood in appearance. On the basis of the newly unearthed physical evidence, prosecutors agreed to have all charges against Youngblood dismissed. The Pima County Attorney said that he was "sorry [that Youngblood was] incarcerated for an offense for which he was not guilty." Youngblood had spent over a decade in prison, plus additional years wrongly labeled a sex offender, for a crime he did not commit.
In 1996 Rafael Suarez made the mistake of "getting involved" and becoming a good Samaritan. While visiting in Cochise County, Suarez saw a fight break out between two men, and he intervened to try to stop it. These facts were known to witnesses and recorded on the 911 tape when one of the witnesses called the police to come to the scene and end the fight between her brother and another man. At the time, Suarez was a Tucson resident, employed by the City of Tucson, and studying to become a paralegal. He was married and had two small children and a third on the way.
Astonishingly, Suarez was charged with two counts of aggravated assault and one count of armed robbery. He hired a private defense attorney to help him prove his innocence at trial. The attorney presented no witnesses (even though he had interviewed the person who made the 911 call and she affirmed that Suarez's involvement was merely as a good Samaritan), nor did the attorney present the transcript of the 911 call. Suarez was convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to five years in prison. For exercising his right to defend his innocence at trial, Suarez was sentenced more severely than was the actual criminal, who plea bargained.
After being incarcerated for nearly three years, the Cochise County Superior Court vacated Suarez's remaining sentence on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel. Once the contents of the 911 tape were brought to his attention, the Cochise County Attorney agreed that Suarez was guilty of nothing and did not re-institute charges against him.
Suarez lost much more than three years of his freedom. The erroneous conviction and imprisonment cost him his marriage, his parental rights, and all of his assets. He undertook various efforts to be compensated for his losses, but none bore fruit. The most nearly successful of those efforts, a lawsuit for legal malpractice against his trial attorney, resulted in a judgment of over $1 million, but none of that was ever received because the attorney had by then been disbarred, carried no malpractice insurance, and had declared bankruptcy.