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Exonerees Struggle To Receive Compensation For Prison Time

Malcolm Alexander spent nearly 38 years serving a prison sentence for a crime he didn't commit, while maintaining his innocence. Eventually, he got help from the Innocence Project, who helped find the DNA evidence that finally cleared him of the crime in 2018, according to NPR. He now is fighting the state of Louisiana to receive financial compensation for the decades he lost. For Alexander, enduring yet another legal process is about more than money. It is also about rebuilding his life and having flexibility. It's still uncertain if he will ever receive money from the state. This year, a trial judge denied his initial claim for compensation. He appealed that decision. Currently, 38 states plus the District of Columbia have statutes to compensate exonerees for their wrongful convictions, but the process can take years. Frederick Clay also spent close to 38 years in prison for a wrongful conviction; he was released and exonerated in 2017. After lawsuits and years of waiting, he received $1 million from the state of Massachusetts in 2019. "Even though [the state] recognized that I didn't receive a fair trial and I was exonerated, the state did not automatically give me money," Clay said. "I had to work. I had to also file a lawsuit. And [with that lawsuit] it took time for it to go through its process and for me to receive compensation."

How someone gets compensated, and how much money they receive, varies by state. There are three paths to financial compensation. Clay pursued the two most common: state statutes and federal civil rights lawsuits. Vanessa Potkin of the Innocence Project said state statutes require exonerees to prove – once again – that they are innocent, and some states limit the amount that can be paid. For others, a federal civil rights lawsuit may result in financial compensation of millions of dollars, given the right context. Jeffrey Gutman, a professor of clinical law at the George Washington University, says it hinges on demonstrating wrongdoing from a government entity. Gutman is a special correspondent with the National Registry of Exonerations, which tracks information about exonerees. "The theory being that a government agency and or a governmental actor ... it could be a prosecutor, it could be a police officer, a forensic scientist; it runs the gamut – acted in a manner that was unconstitutional," he said. "That unconstitutional misconduct caused the wrongful conviction." Some states allow exonerees to pursue only one compensation method. Other states allow both, and in states where there is no statute, a federal claim is a path forward. The third method of getting compensation is a private bill passed in state legislatures. This is the rarest method because it requires strong advocacy to legislators and compelling stories that gather public attention.


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