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$3 Million in Settlements for Wrongful Illinois Convictions

by Matthew T. Clarke

On June 17, 2003, Illinois passed a state budget that includes around $1.5 million in settlements for wrongly convicted former prisoners, including Rolondo Cruz and Aaron Patterson, former death row prisoners pardoned by former Governor George Ryan. Chicago approved a separate $1.5 million settlement for Calvin Owens, a wrongfully convicted former death row prisoner. Details on wrongful convictions are in the July 2003 PLN cover story.

$120,300 is for Cruz, who DNA evidence exonerated of the 1982 murder of a 12-year old girl. He was released in 1995 and pardoned in 2002. Patterson, wrongly convicted of murdering an elderly couple in 1986, will receive $161,500. The Roscetti 4 (men wrongly convicted of the 1986 rape-murder of medical student Lori Roscetti) will each receive over $120,000.

Court of Claims Judge Andrew Raucci commented on the settlement by saying, "We normally approve the maximum allowed by statute. We have some discretion, but normally these are so low to start. We're talking about someone spending 15 years in prison, so $150,000 is not a lot of money."

The settlements do not include litigation settlements or awards in lawsuits against law enforcement agencies. Thus, the settlement Illinois pays Calvin Owens, the youngest of the Roscetti 4, won't affect the $1.5 million Chicago settlement. Owens was 14 when convicted and spent 15 years in prison. In 2001 the Roscetti 4 were pardoned by Ryan and released after DNA evidence showed two other men had murdered Roscetti. Lawsuits filed by Larry Inns, Omar Saunders, and Marcellius Bradford, the other three members of the Roscetti 4, are still pending.

Some Chicago city aldermen noted that the settlement was small for a man who spent 15 years in prison, perhaps too small. Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Conviction at Northwestern University Law School agrees, calling it "exceedingly low." However, Kathleen Zellner, attorney for Calvin Owens, thinks her client did very well because most of the wrongfully convicted receive low or no compensation for their stolen lives. Zellner said that many suits following DNA exonerations are dismissed before the jury considers damages because the jury finds probable cause existed for the arrest, even if mistakes were made. The four men were arrested four months after the murder when Bradford told police that Calvin and his cousin Larry Owens raped and murdered Roscetti while Omar Saunders and Bradford watched. Bradford alleged that police beat the confession out of him. Likewise, Calvin claims police later tricked him into falsely confessing.

Alderman Ed Smith, one of those questioning whether the settlement was enough for what Calvin had been through, asked why none of the involved police officers have been punished, accusing the Police Department of a cover up.

Zellner has already established a reputation fighting for society's underdogs. In March 1999, she won a $2.2 million award from building management for a woman who was raped in the Chicago Bar Association Building. In July 1999, she won a $6.5 million award against a hospital that refused admission to a woman who later committed suicide. She has also won freedom for seven wrongly-convicted men since 1994, including the Roscetti 4, former death row prisoner Joseph Burrows, and two men wrongly convicted of murdering two college students, Billy Wardell and Donald Reynolds. PLN has also reported damage verdicts on behalf of Illinois prisoners subjected to medical neglect which she won.

Sources: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Chicago Tribune,

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