Seeking Amends for False Imprisonment

September 28, 1999 12:00 am

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BOSTON — How do the innocent collect when they are released from prison after spending years behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit?

In New York, they sue for reparations. In California and Massachusetts, they petition lawmakers for relief. But what they’re paid differs wildly, Associated Press reports.

A bill before Massachusetts lawmakers proposes an examination of how the state should make amends. Rather than leave monetary judgments to a jury or the Legislature, Rep. Thomas P. Kennedy has proposed establishing a commission to investigate and recommend possible solutions.

Civil libertarians say the system must compensate victims of its mistakes.

“I think that when there’s been a miscarriage of justice, the state does owe the person who has been harmed,” said Norma Shapiro, an American Civil Liberties Union legislative specialist.

But the idea of a public policy for compensating former convicts has raised concerns. Michael Sullivan, president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, said payments shouldn’t be made to those freed on a technicality.

“It should really be truly set up and only considered for those that are clearly innocent and wrongly accused, charged, convicted and sentenced,” he said Monday.

Fourteen states, the District of Columbia and the federal government have statutes addressing compensation for those wrongly imprisoned, according to an article in a recent publication of the American Bar Association.

Two states – New York and West Virginia – do not limit damages. Elsewhere, caps range up to $300,000, while the federal limit is $5,000. California, for example, allows up to $10,000, which former Marine Kevin Lee Green received after spending 17 years in prison after being convicted of beating his wife and killing their unborn child. Citing DNA evidence, a judge ruled in 1996 that Green did not commit the crime; earlier this year, the actual killer was convicted after confessing.

Green is appealing to lawmakers to pass a bill that would give him $650,000, equivalent to about $100 a day for every day he spent behind bars.

“How do you compensate for that kind of time?” Green said. “For the things I missed that I can’t get back?”

The ACLU’s Shapiro said people like Green often lack political clout or the money to win their fight for compensation.

“We have only just begun to recognize that those who have been wrongly convicted are also victims,” she said.

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