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California Exonerees Not Quite Innocent Under the Law

Many prisoners who get their convictions overturned, especially after serving lengthy prison terms, rightly expect to be compensated when they prove they never should have been prosecuted. However, exonerees in California often face a difficult battle for compensation, made all the more challenging by homelessness.

Glenn Payne is one of many persons whose conviction was overturned after serving prison time for a crime he didn’t commit. Payne spent 13 years in prison for a 1991 child molestation conviction that was overturned because the hair identification evidence linking him to the crime was discredited. At age 55, he’s regaining peace of mind as a free man who no longer has to register as a sex offender.

The state of California has laws in place to govern claims for compensation for those subjected to wrongful convictions. Payne doesn’t qualify, though, because his lawyers did not submit evidence that he was innocent of the crime by the end of the two-year filing deadline. Such a hurdle can be nearly impossible to overcome, especially in cases like Payne’s where the evidence was destroyed prior to his release.

Of the 76 former prisoners who have filed for compensation since 2006, the California Victim Compensation Board (CalVCB) has approved 26 petitions for a total of $14.1 million. This is based on a statutorily authorized amount of $140 per day for wrongful incarceration.

After years behind bars, many exonerees face serious challenges reintegrating into society while struggling to find employment and meet basic needs. “Such a large sum of money for someone like Glenn in the difference between adequate food, healthcare, and shelter, and homelessness,” said Linda Starr, a Santa Clara University law professor and executive director of the Northern California Innocence Project.

In some cases, the court recognizes its error and certifies a person as “factually innocent” under Penal Code 851.8. Such was the case with Craig Richard Coley, who was authorized compensation totaling nearly $2 million after serving over 38 years in prison on what the Ventura County District Attorney described in court filings as an “extraordinary miscarriage of justice.” A 2013 investigation ordered by the governor found “that the detective who originally investigated the matter mishandled the investigation or framed Mr. Coley.” Coley was unique because the court’s finding of factual innocence bound CalVCB to compensate him, according to P.C. 851.865 and 1485.55.

Most exonerees aren’t so lucky. Maurice Caldwell served roughly 20 years on a second-degree murder conviction that was overturned in 2011. “Some people try to say just be thankful you [are] free,” said Caldwell. “I didn’t get away with a crime, so why [do] I just want to be thankful for being free? I’m going to be thankful when I get the justice of me being free, my actual innocence, the compensation, the truth.” Caldwell has spent the last eight years unsuccessfully fighting the state for compensation.

Obie Anthony was freed in 2011 and used his compensation to start a foundation to help exonerees. As of May 2019, the foundation was paying for Caldwell’s hotel, giving him a place to stay while he fights the state. Anthony said such exonerees are stuck in a gray zone between the presumption of innocence accorded to those not yet convicted, and a presumption of guilt they must overcome after having their convictions reversed.

Paula Mitchell of Loyola Law School’s Project for the Innocent said, “It’s not fair to leave these people in legal limbo, living in this nether region between guilt and innocence. Quite simply, if the conviction has been overturned and the prosecution cannot retry the person, then they should be entitled to compensation.”