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Few Oklahoma Exonerees Paid for Their Wrongful Incarceration

Despite Oklahoma having a wrongful-conviction compensation statute on the books since 2003, few exonerees in that state have received payment.

One example of the battles exonerees face is the case of Greg Wilhoit, who was sentenced to death for the 1985 murder of his wife. Her body was discovered in her apartment a few weeks after they separated. Her throat had been slashed and there was a bite mark on her breast. The bite mark was the only evidence used to convict Wilhoit. At his trial, the prosecutor presented two dentists who testified that the bite mark matched Wilhoit's teeth.

Wilhoit's attorney was a known alcoholic. He never challenged the bite mark evidence and failed to send it to an independent forensic dentist.

Wilhoit's appellate attorney, Mark Barrett, sent the evidence to 12 of the top forensic dental experts in the country. They all agreed that it did not match Wilhoit. An appeals court reversed his conviction. Four years later, a court finally stopped the prosecutor's efforts to retry him.

Released after five years on death row, Wilhoit's luck continued to be bad. The state refused to pay compensation, saying that he was never declared "actually innocent" by a court.

Finally, in 2012, Barrett convinced the state to pay him about a third of the $175,000 cap on compensation. Less than two years later, he was dead. He had suffered from PTSD due to his death row experience, had taken to drinking and had been hit by a car resulting in partially paralysis.

Including Wilhoit, only 6 of the 28 Oklahomans on the National Exoneration Registry have received any payment for their years of wrongful incarceration. They averaged 9 years in prison. Half served over a decade.

Of the 28 exonerees, 11 were cleared by DNA tests and 6 served time on death row. Of the six, only Roy Williamson received compensation payments.

To receive compensation in Oklahoma, exonerees must have a legal finding of "actual innocence." This requirement makes exonerees prove they did not committed the crime instead of making the state prove they did. But courts are reluctant to reverse a conviction on actual innocence grounds. Instead, they find a procedural error to justify the reversal, leaving exonerees subject to retrial and ineligible for compensation.

Those lucky enough to receive an actual innocence finding must file a tort claim with the local agency involved in the case. If the agency does not pay the claim within a prescribed time, the exoneree may file a lawsuit in state court seeking compensation. Tort claim compensation is capped at $175,000. An exoneree could file a federal civil rights lawsuit, but they are hard to win, requiring proof the wrongful conviction was not negligent or accidental, but rather the result of deliberate indifference or intentional.

Only 14 of the 28 exonerees filed a tort claim or lawsuit. Only one tort claim was paid by a local agency. That payment was to Sedrick Courtney, who spent 16 years in prison for a robbery and burglary he did not commit. He was on parole before Tulsa police finally admitted possessing hair evidence they had twice previously said had been destroyed and DNA testing cleared Courtney. Courtney has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit claiming law enforcers manufactured evidence and obstructed his efforts to prove his innocence.

The largest payment was an award in a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by Arvin McGee, who was released from prison in 2002 after DNA tests proved he did not commit a 1987 rape and kidnapping. The same DNA evidence showed an imprisoned sex offender committed the crimes.

McGee sued Tulsa in federal court. In 2006, a jury awarded him $14.4 million. He then settled for $12.2 million. Source:

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