What is lost freedom worth?

Dr. Richard Ek is a retired Chico State University journalism professor and department chairman who contributes frequently to the Chico News & Review.

Last week in this space, I wrote about the non-profit Innocence Project born in 1992 and its success through DNA evidence testing from the crime scene—often rape or murder—in freeing 200 wrongly convicted prisoners, nearly all of them poor minority men.

God alone knows how many other innocent prisoners whose cases lack DNA evidence are languishing in prison or on death row (and how many Mr. Guilties are still out there uncaught). I also pointed out how our governor vetoed two bills that would have remedied abuses in eyewitness identification error and false confessions that control most wrongful convictions.

But what happens after a conviction is overturned?

The news media customarily show the overjoyed convict outside the prison or courthouse. The media always focus on the loss of what are usually the best years of a man’s life, neglecting to mention the punishment of prison itself with its cramped cells, homosexual rapes, solitary confinement, etc. The media never focus on what happens next in the fractured life of the person who wrongly paid his debt to society in prison. Does society in turn owe a debt to the innocent prisoner?

Twenty-two states believe that paying for lost years is only fair, but such compensation varies. A few examples: California, $100 for every day wrongly spent in prison; Ohio, $40,000 per year; Wisconsin, a flat $25,000; New Hampshire, a flat $20,000; North Carolina, up to $150,000; and Alabama, $50,000 for each year, pro-rated for part of a year.

Some of the other 28 states are starting to come around, but the rest have bought into the idea that the jury, not the state, made a mistake, so the state (taxpayers) owes nothing. Bad reasoning. The prosecutor’s “infallible” evidence, accepted for the trial record by the judge, and the judge’s instructions to the jury usually lead the jury to its decision.

Compensation isn’t automatic. If freedom comes via a pardon, the ex-con must prove his innocence. If a judge throws out the conviction, things are simpler.

In California, the freed man must file a claim with the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board. The three-person panel reviews the DNA evidence before allowing payment of the $100-per-day award.

In some of the most egregious cases of long false imprisonment in other states, big-name lawyers have stepped forward to bring civil-rights actions before juries. An Oklahoma jury in one such case awarded an ex-con $14.5 million, while another jury in Illinois awarded $15 million. In my opinion, those millions come somewhat closer to paying what the best years of a man’s life are worth.