The disparity in compensation awards for prisoners exonerated by DNA evidence in Georgia demonstrates the need for evenhanded compensation laws.
Five wrongly convicted prisoners, Clarence Harrison, Robert Clark, Douglas Echols, Samuel Scott and Willie Otis “Pete” Williams, spent a combined 82 years in Georgia prisons for crimes they didn’t commit. All were proven innocent by DNA evidence.
Three of those five received compensation from the state – Harrison, who served 17 years for the abduction, robbery and rape of a woman waiting for a bus; Clark, who served almost 24 years for rape, kidnapping and robbery; and Williams, who served 21 years for kidnapping, rape and aggravated sodomy before being exonerated in 2007.
Harrison, who was 44 when released from prison in 2004, was awarded $1 million by state lawmakers. Clark re-ceived $1.2 million after the Georgia legislature passed a resolution approving the payment in March 2007. He had contracted hepatitis C while in prison. Williams was awarded $1.2 million in compensation.
“Can you even fathom in your wildest imagination what it must be like for this man to lose his entire adult life, until now, incarcerated in prison, literally excommunicated from free society, beat down emotionally and probably physically, too?” asked state Rep. Larry O’Neal, who sponsored the resolution for Clark’s compensation payment.
Echols and Scott, however, had a prosecutor who still insists they are not “factually innocent” despite the DNA evi-dence. They were cleared in 2002 of raping a woman in Scott’s home.
The victim claimed Scott held her down while Echols raped her. A third assailant was never identified. Scott served 5 years before being paroled, while Echols was imprisoned for 15 years.
Their prosecutor, Spencer Lawton, was made famous by John Brendt’s book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Lawton wrote a letter to state legislators asserting that Echols and Scott were never exonerated and are not factu-ally innocent despite DNA evidence to the contrary.
The lawmaker who sponsored the legislation to compensate Scott and Echols said he felt “blindsided” by Lawton’s let-ter. “He wasn’t man enough to admit he may have convicted the wrong guys,” observed former state Rep. Tom Bordeaux. “It was wrong in the most fundamental way. It was indecent.”
Echols has sued Lawton for violating his constitutional rights by lobbying against Bordeaux’s compensation legisla-tion. See: Echols v. Lawton, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Ga.), Case No. 4:08-cv-00023-WTM-GRS. Meanwhile, Echols and Scott have said the fact that their conviction records were not expunged has made it hard for them to find work, as they are still technically convicted felons.
Georgia is one of 23 states that do not have laws governing compensation for the wrongly convicted. Instead, exonerees have to find a lawmaker willing to introduce legislation requesting compensation on their behalf – a process that has had disparate results.
“Rather than the emotional aspect on a case-by-case basis, I think we ought to have some guidelines to help us in the future,” said Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue.
Beyond fair compensation laws, one state lawmaker, Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, repeatedly introduced meas-ures to reform Georgia’s eyewitness identification procedures, since faulty eyewitness testimony has been implicated in a high percentage of wrongful convictions. Although her legislation failed to pass, on December 10, 2008 the Georgia Peace Officers Standards and Training Council voted to require training for law enforcement officers on new eyewitness identification rules.
“We needed to step up to the plate,” said Ken Vance, the Council’s director. “This is good for law enforcement in Georgia.” It’s also good for defendants who risk being wrongly convicted based on faulty eyewitness identification.
Other recent wrongful convictions in Georgia include those of John Jerome White and Michael Marshall. White served a total of 22 years for the rape, robbery and assault of a 74-year-old woman before being exonerated by DNA evidence on December 10, 2007. In April 2009 state lawmakers approved $500,000 in compensation for White; how-ever, it included provisions requiring him to undergo drug testing, remain employed and stay out of trouble. Also, despite clear evidence that he had been wrongly convicted, his compensation award just barely passed the state senate on a vote of 29 to 21 (a minimum of 29 votes were required).
The most recent Georgia DNA exoneree, Michael Marshall, was proven innocent in December 2009 after serving 1½ years of a 4-year sentence for vehicle theft. He had been homeless at the time of the crime, and was arrested because he looked like a sketch of a suspect who stole a truck at gunpoint. His compensation request is pending.
There have been eight DNA exonerations in Georgia since 1999, most involving the efforts of the Georgia Innocence Project.
Sources: The News Tribune, www.jacksonville.com, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, www.ga-innocenceproject.org
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