Friday, May 2, 2008

Compensation for wrongly jailed approved


Florida lawmakers, who once kept two men wrongfully sent to Death Row waiting 22 years for compensation, voted Tuesday to make the process automatic.
The measure, which passed the House unanimously Tuesday and went to the governor, would give wrongfully imprisoned inmates $50,000 for each year spent in prison, up to $2 million.

If signed by Gov. Charlie Crist, the measure will allow former inmates to receive that money simply by petitioning the court in which they were convicted, freeing those who have been unjustly imprisoned from having to navigate the bureaucratic maze of the Legislature for years. The bill passed the Senate on a 37-1 vote last week.

''It's more than half a loaf. This is a lot,'' said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat and the bill's Senate sponsor. ``This is the Legislature understanding Florida has a responsibility to right the wrongs of the past.''

The development of DNA testing has pushed up the number of prison inmates who are innocent, with more than 200 inmates exonerated nationwide since 1989. The latest happened Tuesday, when a Dallas man was released after spending 27 years in a Texas prison for a murder DNA evidence showed he didn't commit.

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia provide uniform ways of offering compensation for the wrongfully imprisoned, according to the national Innocence Project, a national organization that helps wrongfully incarcerated inmates win their freedom through DNA testing.

But in Florida, where wrongfully imprisoned inmates need to petition the Legislature for compensation, the road to repayment has been paved with red tape and success is often determined by factors like the compensation bill's sponsor and the whims of legislative leadership.

As a result, the nine former inmates who have been freed by DNA evidence in Florida and asked for compensation have spent years struggling to win the money. Only two have received compensation so far. And several lawmakers continue to vote against proposed compensation bills -- known as claims bills -- as a protest against the Byzantine process.

In the best-known compensation tie-up, it took 22 years for Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee to be compensated.

Pitts and Lee spent 12 years in prison for two 1963 murders they didn't commit before being pardoned. They then spent another 23 years trying to win compensation from the state. They were each finally paid $500,000 in 1998.

Last year, a bill to award $1.25 million to Alan Crozter, who spent almost 25 years in prison for two rapes he did not commit, died in a bureaucratic tangle. Lawmakers approved Crotzer's money this session and Crist signed the bill into law earlier this month.

Sen. Dave Aronberg, a Greenacres Democrat and Senate sponsor of the bill to compensate Crotzer, said the current process needs to change, adding he was fortunate that the governor, Senate president and House speaker made the bill a priority. ''The claims bill process is flawed because it depends on the whims of the Legislature and oftentimes on whether someone has a good lobbyist,'' Aronberg said.

But as part of an earlier compromise, the bill does exclude those with prior felony convictions, the so-called ''clean hands'' provision. They would still have to go through the legislative claims process.

Eric Ferrero, spokesman for the national Innocence Project, said the clean hands provision is a ''fatal flaw.'' He said that of the 23 states that have compensation laws for the wrongfully incarcerated, none disqualify people based on unrelated prior felony convictions.

''They have paid their debt to society for prior convictions but society has not paid its debt to them for a separate and unrelated wrongful conviction,'' Ferrero said.

Lawmakers pointed out that under the bill that passed Tuesday, Crozter would still have been required to ask the Legislature for compensation because he was convicted of holding up a store and stealing beer as a young man.

'The major problem with the bill was the `clean hands' portion,'' said Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller of Cooper City. ``But it's a lot better than nothing.''

Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.

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