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Wrongly Convicted and Unevenly Repaid

Justice: DNA tests have freed some men, but remuneration usually depends on where they live, when they are released and how skilled their lawyers are.

June 16, 2002|SHARON COHEN | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

After A.B. Butler Jr. was cleared of rape and freed from prison two years ago, the state of Texas granted him a pardon and gave him a check for its mistake. The value of 16 years behind bars: About $4.60 a day.

The check totaled $27,854 for more than a third of his life wasted, while his parents died and his marriage collapsed.

"It should have been more and it could have been more," sighs Butler, a 47-year-old construction worker. "But I just look at it as a blessing that I'm free."

Although Butler's attitude is accepting, his case and a growing number like it raise a question: When innocent prisoners are freed after "paying a debt to society" that was never owed, does society have a debt to them in return?

What these men have found is varying and sometimes inconsistent state standards for paying--and, often, not paying--for the life-changing mistake of putting the wrong person in prison.

An Associated Press review of 110 men whose convictions were overturned by DNA testing shows that where they live, when they were freed and even how skilled their lawyers are greatly influence whether they get compensated and, if so, by how much.

"There's no fairness," declares Randy Schaffer, a Houston lawyer who has represented three freed Texas men. "Society has not decided it owes any obligation to those that it sweeps from its midst wrongly."

Only 15 states, along with the District of Columbia and the federal government, have specific laws to compensate the wrongly convicted, according to a review conducted last year by Pace University associate law professor Adele Bernhard.

"It's not the common person's issue," she says. "We don't think it's going to happen to us or anybody we know."

Associated Press found 43 of the 110 men have received compensation, ranging from Ben Salazar's $25,000 in Texas to an extraordinary $36 million civil settlement shared by four Illinois men locked up for a total of 65 years.

Thirteen men collected $1 million or more, from civil suits, state claims or both.

Although money will never make up for the lost pieces of these men's lives, for some compensation isn't just a question of fairness, but a matter of survival.

Kirk Bloodsworth was branded a child killer and languished in a Maryland prison for nearly a decade. For two years he was on death row.

He says the state robbed him of the chance to build his business as a fisherman. Now 41, the ex-Marine has health problems but no health insurance--and fears he could lose his boat.

Bloodsworth seethes when he compares his compensation to that of a woman awarded far more after she burned herself with spilled coffee at a fast-food restaurant.

"The state was ready to kill me," he says, his voice rising, "and I got $300,000."

Bloodsworth collected $30,000 for each year he was locked up. But he spent more than half of it the day he received his check, paying off loans and legal fees and reimbursing his father, who dug into his savings for the drawn-out battle to free his son.

Bloodsworth ran out of money quickly and for a short time was homeless, sleeping in his truck and at a restaurant where he found work. He says he wasted some of his compensation, opening his wallet too often for newfound friends.

"I guess I wanted some social acceptance," he says. "I wanted to feel good again."

David Shawn Pope knows that feeling. After spending 15 years in a Texas prison for a rape he didn't commit, he indulged in his own spending spree with the first part of $385,000 he'll collect.

A $50,000 Ford Mustang Cobra. Furniture. A stylish wardrobe. Modeling, acting, bartending classes. "To be honest with you, when I got out, I was pretty lonely," he says. "Spending money can be an addiction. It makes you feel better."

Pope, now 40, has scaled back since his release last year, but still has a swank, $2,300-a-month apartment in the Marina district of San Francisco.

"Other tenants in my building say, 'Hello, how are you?' It's like they're saying, 'You must be well off, you're one of us.' But I'm really not."

Pope benefited from a Texas law passed last year that boosted compensation to $25,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration, up to $500,000.

Previously, Texas paid a maximum of $50,000--though almost no one received much more than $25,000.

Because Butler's compensation came under the old law, he received less than one-tenth of what Pope collected, even though he served more time.

As DNA continues to free inmates, more states are considering compensation.

In May, the Oklahoma House and Senate passed a bill to provide as much as $200,000 to wrongly convicted people. Last year, Gov. Frank Keating vetoed a compensation measure, saying it was too broad. He has not yet decided whether he will sign the new legislation, an aide says.

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