Innocent life-sentence convicts freed by DNA tests still suffer

Victims of miscarriages of justice in US get little help as report says only five states meet $50,000 a year federal compensation standard.

James Bain walked out of a Florida prison in December after spending 35 years incarcerated for the rape and kidnapping of a 9-year-old boy. That same month a judge in Washington ordered Donald Gates released after he had served 28 years for the rape and murder of a 21-year-old college student who had been shot five times in the head.

Last month Greg Taylor was let out of a North Carolina prison after spending 17 years locked up for the 1991 murder of Jacquetta Thomas, whose battered body was discovered in a cul-de-sac in Raleigh, the state capital. The three man share a horrifying reality: they never should have been imprisoned in the first place. Mr Bain and Mr Gates are among the at least 245 people in the United States who DNA testing has shown someone else was responsible for the crimes for which they were imprisoned.

Mr Taylor became the first person set free by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, established in 2006 after a series of wrongful convictions, when a three-judge panel found "clear and convincing evidence" that he was innocent. The trio's wrongful incarcerations and return to society come at a time when states are increasingly grappling with soul-searching questions: how much are those lost years worth? How does society compensate a person for taking away his freedom? How do you calculate the monetary value of birthdays and holidays missed with loved ones? Career opportunities eviscerated? A son's first Little League game or daughter's high school graduation never to be experienced?

Rebecca Brown, policy advocate at the Innocence Project at the Benjamin Cardoza School of Law at New York's Yeshiva University, which works to exonerate wrongfully convicted people, said: "It would be impossible to restore a life to what it was pre-incarceration, but society has an obligation to do all it can to do so. "Even the best restitution framework cannot be defined as fair, per se, but society must do everything possible to provide compassionate assistance upon release," she said.

In this regard, Mr Bain, Mr Gates and Mr Taylor are in better situations than many others who have been released from prison after wrongful convictions. The jurisdictions that convicted and incarcerated them have compensation laws. An Innocence Project report last year found that 23 states do not offer any compensation at all and that 40 per cent of those released because DNA testing proved their innocence "have not received any compensation and many more received only a paltry amount that fell far short of repaying their losses or helping them get established in the free world".

Of the 27 states that have compensation laws, the amount offered varies from New Hampshire's $20,000 (Dh73,460) maximum to Texas's $80,000 per year of wrongful incarceration with no max-out amount to Tennessee's $1 million total allowed. Florida, where Mr Bain, was imprisoned, offers $50,000 a year for each year incarcerated, meaning he is eligible to receive $1.75 million as well as 120 paid-for hours of tuition at a career centre, community college or state university.

Mr Taylor can collect the maximum amount allowed under North Carolina law, $750,000, for his 17 years in prison. The Tar Heel state also offers job training and education tuition waivers. In Washington, DC, the decision of how much to award in compensation is up to the judge, who would likely cite federal law as the guide. It offers $50,000 for each year imprisoned - $100,000 a year if on death row. Mr Gates could receive $1.4 million.

The Innocence Project report pointed out that only five states meet the federal standard of $50,000 a year, adopted in 2004, and that the "median amount of financial assistance per year of wrongful imprisonment is approximately $24,000" while "the median US household income is over $50,000 per year - more than twice as much as this". "New laws in Texas, Vermont and North Carolina provide better financial assistance and an array of support services. But these good laws are the exception not the rule ... and they benefit only the exonerated in those particular states," the report said. "For exonerees in other parts of the country, the punishment continues long after exoneration."

Ms Brown said all states should adopt not only "monetary compensation at a minimum of $50,000 per year" but also a "provision of services immediately upon release". "The state absolutely has an obligation in this area," she said. "At minimum, subsistence assistance, housing, transportation, medical and mental health services, education, job skills training are required." Jeffery Deskovic is emblematic of the need for such services. Sent to a New York prison at the age of 17 for the rape and murder of a high school classmate, he had little experience in the adult world when he was released from prison 16 years later.

"I am this alien," he was quoted as saying in the Innocence Project report. "I'm the man pretending he knows what the hell is going on around him when in fact he's clueless." During his first six months out of prison, Mr Deskovic got by on $137-a-month disability checks and $150 in food stamps from the federal government. The Innocence Project also provided some financial support, but as its report said, "Deskovic had lost his entire young adulthood - the prime of his life - to be released with nothing and no support."

He said he survived during his early days as a free man on Cheerios, tuna, canned corn and prepackaged noodle soups. "I would imagine that nearly any man or woman would be surprised, saddened and perhaps angered by the notion of an uncompensated wrongful conviction," Ms Brown said.