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Washington Enacts Wrongful Conviction Compensation Law; County Reneges on $10.5 Million Settlement with Exonerated Prisoners

Washington Enacts Wrongful Conviction Compensation Law; County Reneges on $10.5 Million Settlement with Exonerated Prisoners

Washington has joined the list of states that provide compensation for defendants who were wrongfully convicted and subsequently exonerated. Governor Jay Inslee signed the legislation on May 10, 2013, and it went into effect that summer.

The law allows prisoners who have been proven innocent to file claims with the state for $50,000 for each year they were incarcerated. Those who were sentenced to death are eligible to receive an additional $50,000 per year, while claimants can receive $25,000 for each year served on parole, community custody or as a registered sex offender.

Further, the statute provides compensation for “child support payments owed by the claimant that became due and interest on child support arrearages that accrued while the claimant was in custody on the felony or felonies that are grounds for the compensation claim,” with such compensation payable to the Department of Social and Health Services. Successful claimants can also receive reimbursement for restitution, fees and court costs related to their wrongful conviction; tuition payments at state universities and community colleges; and attorney fees for bringing the claim, up to $75,000.

“We currently have three lawsuits going through the court system brought by people who were wrongfully convicted,” said state Rep. Tina Orwall, the legislation’s sponsor, in response to other lawmakers who balked, citing the state’s budget deficit. “One payout in just one of these cases will be much more than the cost of the new bill.”

Rep. Orwall proposed the legislation after hearing about the plight of Alan Northrop and Larry Davis, who were convicted in Clark County, Washington in 1993 for a rape they did not commit. They both served 17 years before their convictions were vacated in 2010, when DNA evidence proved two other men had committed the crime.

“I did 17 messed-up years in there,” Northrop said of his time in prison. After nearly two decades behind bars, it was difficult finding his way once he was released.

“Just trying to make a decision – a simple decision. I’m not used to that,” he said. “In [prison], you don’t have to worry about it.”

Even though he was exonerated, the stigma of being labeled a convicted rapist left Northrop with few job prospects. He struggled before finally finding an entry-level position at an auto glass repair shop, earning $11 per hour. Such a meager salary did little to help him get back on his feet or put a dent in a $50,000 bill for back child support that had accrued while he was incarcerated.

“When I read about it, I was just so distressed by his story,” said Rep. Orwall. “I definitely wanted to help him. As a parent, I can’t think of something more horrible.” Her legislation was championed by the Innocence Project Northwest Legislative Advocacy Clinic, and Northrop testified in support of the bill.

The law allows people who were wrongfully convicted and exonerated to bring damage claims against the state in superior court. The claimant must show they were pardoned or that their conviction was reversed or vacated based on significant evidence of innocence; once a judge or jury determines the claim is valid, the court may award damages. They must also forgo any other remedies if they pursue the claims process, such as lawsuits against state or local officials.

Orwall said an Innocence Project study identified just four wrongful conviction cases in Washington State in the preceding 12 years that would qualify for compensation under the statute. As of October 2014 around 30 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government had compensation laws for wrongful convictions, though some are more restrictive than others. States without compensation statutes include Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon and Pennsylvania.

At first, the story of Northrop and his codefendant, Larry Davis, whose plight had moved Rep. Orwall to introduce her wrongful conviction compensation bill, appeared to have a happy ending. In 2013, Clark County announced that it had reached a settlement in a federal lawsuit filed by the two men that would pay them $5.25 million each. Had they filed a claim against the state under the new law, they would have received only $850,000 apiece.

According to The Columbian, “The county agreed to pay the $10.5 million settlement out of its own coffers because its insurer – Washington Counties Risk Pool – declined to pay any settlement or verdict related to the case.” The county planned to take out a loan to cover most of the settlement, which was reached during a jury trial on Northrop and Davis’ claims, and the terms of the agreement allowed them to seek additional damages from the Risk Pool.

One of their claims involved sheriff’s deputy Don Slagle, who was accused of failing to pursue other leads in the 1993 rape case that resulted in Davis and Northrop being wrongfully convicted. Prior to his retirement, Slagle was disciplined 16 times and had been investigated by internal affairs for dozens of complaints.

However, Clark County later reneged on the settlement agreement, allegedly after being pressured by the Washington Counties Risk Pool and two insurance providers. The Risk Pool filed suit against Northrop and Davis, then canceled its insurance coverage for Clark County in April 2014. The following month Davis and Northrop filed a counterclaim, arguing that the Risk Pool, along with insurance providers American International Group (AIG) and Lexington Insurance Co., had “concocted a scheme” to thwart the settlement to avoid paying their share. The lawsuit and counterclaim remain pending.

 

Sources: Seattle Times, New York Daily News, Associated Press, www.innocenceproject.org, www.columbian.com

 


 

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