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Wrongfully Convicted in California and New York Awarded Damages


On April 29, 2003, then California Governor Gray Davis signed legislation awarding two wrongfully convicted prisoners $100 per day for every day they were in prison. Ricky Daye, who spent 10 years in Folsom Prison, and Leonard McSherry, who served nearly 13 years, will receive $389,000 and $481,000, respectively.

Daye, 45, was convicted in 1984 for the rape of a San Diego woman. He was exonerated by DNA testing in 1994. Under California law at the time, Daye could have received $10,000 for his time behind bars, but he chose instead to sue San Diego authorities in federal court. "$10,000 for 10 years is trivial," said his attorney, Dwight Ritter. Daye's federal lawsuit failed, however. A federal judge refused to allow him to present evidence of his 10 years in prison to the jury. Instead, they heard only that he had spent two days in county jail. No damages were awarded.

After legislation was enacted in 2000 to provide $100 a day for those wrongfully imprisoned, Daye was allowed to make a claim against the state. Still, nearly two more years passed before Daye's award was approved.

Ritter said that it was good that the state had awarded Daye some compensation, but it would have been better if he had been allowed to present all of his evidence in federal court. "I believe 12 California citizens would have likely rendered him considerably more compensation," Ritter said.

McSherry, the other man awarded money, had been convicted of kidnapping and raping a 6-year old girl from Long Beach. In 2001, DNA testing cleared him of the crime.

Another California man, Kevin Greene, was cleared in 1996 after spending 16 years in prison for the murder of his pregnant wife. He was awarded $620,000 in 1999 under special legislation.

New York

Two wrongfully convicted New York men who spent 14 years behind bars for the murder and robbery of a Brooklyn cab driver will split a $3.3 million settlement; the state's largest ever in a wrongful conviction case. Charles Shepherd, 40, and Anthony Faison, 36, were convicted in 1987 largely on the testimony of a lone witness.

Over a two year period, private investigator Michael Race tracked down the witness, an alleged crack addict who had received part of a $1,000 police reward for her testimony. She recanted. Another man, Arlet Cheston, was linked to the crime after fingerprints found at the scene were matched with his. In May of 2001, the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office agreed Shepherd and Faison were innocent.

The two men subsequently sued the state under the Unjust Conviction and Imprisonment Act. Passed in 1984, this statute permits suits against the state and damage awards if defendants can prove their innocence through clear and convincing evidence.

Still, the state aggressively contested their innocence claims before finally settling during the trial in January, 2003. Attorneys for the men, Ronald L. Kuby and Daniel M. Perez, said the state should have settled early on. "The state treats these cases like lawyers for the sleaziest insurance companies treat their cases," said Kuby.

Vincent H. Jenkins received the largest individual award ever in New York $2 million. Jenkins spent 17 years in prison for a 1982 rape which DNA evidence later proved he could not have committed. Jenkins, 60, was released in 1999.

New York and California are two of only 15 states that pay damages to wrongfully convicted defendants. Additionally, most states cap awards; New York does not. However, the Court of Claims does not allow for punitive damages and cases are heard only by a judge, no jury.

Remuneration for wrongful convictions does not come easily. Even in New York, which is believed to have the most generous legislative compensatory scheme, awards are rare. Of the 201 wrongfully convicted persons who have brought suit in the Court of Claims since 1985, only 12 were awarded compensation by the court, with awards ranging from $40,000 to $1.9 million. Another 15 reached settlements ranging from $6,750 to $2 million. The remainder received nothing.

Sources: The Legal Intelligencer (reprinted from American Lawyer Media), San Francisco Chronicle, National Law Journal

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