State Puts Innocent Man on Death Row for 30 Years, Admits Error, Then Refuses to Pay a Cent in Compensation

Hours after Shreveport, Louisiana prosecutor Marty Stroud persuaded a jury to sentence Glenn Ford to death in 1984, he went out to celebrate, toasting his success with other revelers from his office. Ford, meanwhile, was about to be shipped off to prison for the next 30 years, many of them spent in solitary confinement. Three decades later, Ford was released following a 2003 DNA test confirming his innocence. But with only a few months to live because of lung cancer he developed in prison (which went undiagnosed until his release), Ford may as well have been sent to the gallows.

Ford gets by with meager benefits from the federal government, because the state of Louisiana has refused to provide him any restitution as his life draws to a close. This has weighed heavily on Marty Stroud, the prosecutor who has since become a vocal opponent of the death penalty. He wrote a letter to the Shreveport Times strongly condemning the death penalty, his arrogant younger self and the state, for its refusal to compensate Ford. “Glenn Ford should be completely compensated to every extent possible because of the flaws of a system that effectively destroyed his life. The audacity of the state's effort to deny Mr. Ford any compensation for the horrors he suffered in the name of Louisiana justice is appalling,” wrote Stroud. 

Louisiana isn't the only state that fails to provide compensation for innocent people who spent years of their lives in prison. 

Nationally, the system of restitution for exonerated inmates is a mess. At the end of 2014, 30 states had policies mandating payments for people wrongly convicted by the state; 20 states have no compensation laws, and exonerated inmates must either sue the state for money or lobby for an individual bill granting compensation. The states that do provide restitution vary widely in the amount of money they give, whether they offer other support (like job training) in addition to money, and the process of attaining the funds. Some states that offer compensation, including Florida, Missouri, Texas, Virginia, and Washington, also prohibit exonerees from pursuing civil suits against the state. Where lawsuits do occur, they're typically directed against the state, municipalities, and/or police departments, and can result in settlements of over a million dollars. But they're very difficult to win, according to the Innocence Project, a non-profit dedicated to freeing wrongly convicted prisoners.

This patchwork system is mostly a result of how relatively new the concept of exonerations in the criminal justice system is. Waves of prisoners have been exonerated since crime labs began using DNA tests in the 1990s, and in recent years exonerations have progressed more rapidly: A record 125 defendants had their convictions overturned last year, up one-third from 2012. The majority of 2014's exonerations did not result from DNA testing, but from a new type of oversight committee materializing in district attorney's offices across the country known as Conviction Integrity Units (CIU), which review old cases involving innocence claims by inmates.

Even with CIUs and DNA tests, it is still incredibly difficult to overturn convictions. That's because the process is designed to make convictions ironclad, says Gordon Rahn, who chairs the University of New Mexico School of Law’s Innocence and Justice Project.

“We tell our students that procedural and constitutional rules are for the benefit of the defendant, but once convicted, all the rules change,” he told AlterNet. “It's all about protecting the conviction, the burden completely shifts, and it is uphill the whole way.”

That battle continues as released prisoners fight a state loathe to admit any wrongdoing. Glenn Ford, who only wanted to leave his family with something after he's gone, will likely not get a cent from the state of Lousiana. 

Here's a snapshot of six states with no statutes for restitution.

Georgia: In Georgia, exonerated former prisoners have to petition for individual bills granting compensation. Some have been successful; others have had to make do with non-monetary support (like job training) provided by groups like the Innocence Project. 

Two men (Willie Williams and Clarence Harrison) have received around $1 million each in compensation for decades combined in prison. Often even this sum isn't enough to guarantee a viable life on the outside. As BuzzFeed reports, after a freak roadside accident, Harrison had to pay steep medical bills on top of mortgage payments and back taxes to the IRS. His accident also forced him to close the profitable laundromat he ran after his release. Worst of all, he was hoodwinked into giving most of his money to a company promising fast cash in exchange for future payouts of his annual innocence payments. Even with over $1 million and a successful business, Harrison ended up flat broke in just a few years. 

Michigan: Michigan had a record seven exonerations last year, one of the highest in the nation, but there are no restitution laws on the books. There are men in Michigan who claim to be wrongfully imprisoned because of corruption within the Detroit Police Department's homicide division. If proven true in court, their potential release coupled with the accelerating pace of exonerations across the country makes the issue of restitution more salient than ever for Michigan.

“Nobody has obtained compensation for wrongful imprisonment from the state of Michigan because there is no compensation law,” says Samuel Gross, a professor at the University of Michigan and editor of the National Registry of Exoneration. “Some exonerees have received funds as a result of law suits against particular police officers, or police departments, or counties and cities,” he added, but pursuing any of these routes do not guarantee success.

Oregon: Three people were exonerated in Oregon last year, tying it with five other states for 6th highest number of exonerations nationwide. One man convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison was released after nine years; another young woman had a manslaughter conviction struck from her record (she was only sentenced to 100 hours of community service, but the conviction hung heavy on her life in other ways).

Steve Wax, the director of Oregon's Innocence Project, isn't sure whether the state will adopt a law mandating restitution in the future. “There may well be a proposal for compensation and assistance legislation in the next legislative session (2017). [We] would likely be involved in any such proposal.”

But exoneration-legislation may be gaining strength in Oregon: A few weeks ago, an exonerated former inmate testified before the state legislature for DNA testing for any relevant crime, not just murder and sex crimes.

Kentucky and New Mexico: When Gordon Rahn was director of the Innocence Project in Kentucky, state legislators told him it was unlikely that a law mandating restitution would ever pass in the conservative state. Yet during Rahn's 10 years there, he oversaw two multimillion-dollar payouts for two former prisoners, with the help of Innocence Project clinics outside the state.

He relocated to New Mexico, another state with no compensation laws, to direct the Innocence and Justice Program at the University of New Mexico School of Law. Rahn says he has not overseen any exonerations yet, and the state has not used DNA testing to set anybody free. He admits that until that bridge is crossed there probably will not be a statute: “Until we have an exoneration that we can kind of hang our hat on, trying to get some legislation passed in New Mexico won't happen. We're going to have to have an exoneration first.”

Arizona: Fifteen people have been exonerated in Arizona over the last two decades, but none have received any sort of compensation from the state, according to Katie Puzauskas, executive director of the Arizona Justice Project. Some have filed successful civil suits for compensation.

Puzauskas couldn't say how likely it was the state would adopt compensation laws in the future—it is, after all, a red state that seems to be growing redder. “The AZ Justice Project worked on a bill several years ago that was not passed by the legislature,” she told AlterNet. “We have talked recently about trying again and we may look to do something next session.”

Regardless, Puzauskas says, her organization helps exonerees in other ways: “The Project tries to assist its clients upon release with housing, identification, benefits, donations, rides, looking for employment, [and] referrals to other organizations.”

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