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How Do States Compensate the Wrongly Convicted?

When Adnan Syed was 18 years old a jury handed him a life sentence plus 30 years for the murder of his former girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Adnan’s story, and the story of Hae Min Lee’s tragic death, have been chronicled in books, documentaries, and podcasts. The most popular reporting coming from the “Serial” podcast hosted by journalist Sarah Koenig which debuted in 2014. Throughout his imprisonment Mr. Syed maintained his innocence and made multiple attempts at appealing his conviction as well as asking for a retrial. Despite this, Mr. Syed remained imprisoned for 23 years. That all changed when the results of an internal investigation prompted the Baltimore City State’s Attorney Office to file a motion to have Mr. Syed’s conviction vacated. The investigation revealed that the original prosecution team did not pursue a proper investigation of two alternative suspects in Ms. Lee’s murder and failed to disclose evidence that would call Mr. Syed’s alleged involvement in the murder into question. This type of prosecutorial misconduct is known as a “Brady violation”, named after the 1963 Supreme Court Case Brady v. Maryland, which held that a defendant’s due process rights are violated when a prosecutor withholds evidence that is favorable toward proving the defendant’s innocence. Based on the motion filed by the Prosecutor’s office acknowledging the misconduct, on September 19, 2022, Judge Melissa M. Phinn of Baltimore City Circuit Court officially vacated the conviction. However, the judge left the door open for prosecutors to refile charges against Mr. Syed if they still believed he was the perpetrator of Ms. Lee’s murder. Then on October 11, 2022, Baltimore prosecutors officially dropped all charges against Mr. Syed after they conducted DNA testing for the first time on the clothes Ms. Lee was wearing at the time of her death. The clothes lacked Mr. Syed’s DNA, clearing him as a suspect for the murder.

After spending 23 years imprisoned based on a wrongful conviction to now suddenly living in the world as a free man, the question for Mr. Syed is clear, “what’s next?” Understandably, Mr. Syed may seek compensation for the years of his life that were taken away as a result of prosecutorial misconduct. Exoneree’s options in pursuing compensation vary depending on the State they are in. A majority of states have enacted compensation statutes for the wrongfully convicted. The state where Mr. Syed was prosecuted, Maryland, passed one of these statutes in 2021. The Walter Lomax Act, named after a wrongfully convicted man who spent 39 years in prison, provides compensation for those who have proven their innocence by multiplying the current median household income by the number of years the induvial was imprisoned. Journalist Lee Sanderlin noted on twitter that this could result in an award of around $2.2 million for Mr. Syed. Oregon only recently had its own exoneree compensation statute signed into law. On March 24, 2022, Governor Kate Brown signed The Oregon Justice for Exonerees Act which gives those who qualify access to money, housing assistance, counseling, and ensures their records will be sealed. By way of compensation the Act provides $65,000 in for each year of imprisonment and $25,000 for each year spent on parole and supervision.

Just 12 states remain without statutory remedies for the wrongfully convicted (Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, New Mexico, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Wyoming). Exonerees in states without statutes that provide compensation can file civil lawsuits, but they are expensive and take years to resolve. However, these lawsuits often return large money awards. These large money awards have piqued the interests of investors who are willing to front the legal costs and take as much as a third of the resulting award. This is often the only way exoneree’s can afford to sue for compensation, leaving them no option but to accept the ligation loans and their steep interest rates. Organizations like the Innocence Project continue to advocate that the remaining should pass exoneree compensation statutes to properly compensate and acknowledge the wrongfully convicted.

Picture: CNN


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