For years, I’ve been advocating compensation for people who serve long prison sentences for crimes they did not commit, when DNA evidence proves their innocence and they are finally released. It’s hard to put a price on having your freedom taken away and being shoved into the brutality of prison life, but the state must do more than offer a simply “Whoops, we’re sorry!”
That’s why I was happy to see an op-ed by St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce on the subject today. Interestingly, this represents a 180-degree turn from her previous position. A couple of years ago, she (and her predecessor, Dee Joyce-Hayes) fought tooth and nail to keep DNA evidence from being used to exonerate several men charged with horrible crimes. The attorneys at The Innocence Project finally overcame that stonewalling, had the DNA tested, and proved that at least a couple of guys (Larry Johnson and Lonnie Erby) serving serious prison time had not done the crimes they’d been convicted of.
A new law working its way through the Missouri legislature would pay such victims $50/day for every day in prison. That’s a start, but as Vanessa Potkin of The Innocence Project said today on my radio show, it’s not enough, particularly when compared with California and Tennessee, both of which pay $100/day, up to a million dollars.
What’s worse, criminal in fact, is that this new law specifically excludes Johnson, Erby, and a third guy named Steve Toney — the only men in Missouri history to be exonerated by DNA evidence after serving time in prison! That would be like passing a law on September 12, 2001, that all future victims of massive terrorism in the US would be compensated, but not those injured or killed on 9/11. So, here you have these three guys who have been wronged by the state, who are now being screwed again!
Joyce wrote that the current Missouri bill wouldn’t cost the taxpayers anything because the compensation would be funded by convicted felons paying a court surcharge. But Potkin wonders what happens if there’s a claim and the fund isn’t large enough? What if there’s only $100,000 and there are three valid claimants — do they get the short end of the stick yet again?
Larry Johnson was behind bars for 18 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Lonnie Erby served 17 years of a 115-year sentence for a rape he had nothing to do with. Put yourself in their place and imagine what it would take to compensate you for all that time in a cell, fighting for your life every day, missing your kids as they grew. The taxpayers didn’t shed a tear paying for their incarceration; we should do the right thing and help pay for their freedom — with money, job training, whatever it takes.
Consider it Missouri’s version of “The Shawshank Redemption.”