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When Ohio solo practitioner Thomas Watkins was appointed to handle a sexual predator designation for a rape convict up for parole, he expected the case to take about 15 minutes and make him $100. It didn’t work out that way. Watkins spent the next two months getting Jimmy Williams’ life sentence overturned after 10 years in prison. Now he is facing a second battle, to get money for Williams under an Ohio statute that sets guidelines for reimbursement of wrongfully convicted people. Watkins said his decision to reinvestigate the case stemmed from his first meeting with Williams, who was convicted of raping a 12-year-old girl in 1991. Williams was adamant about his innocence. “I’ve been a prosecutor before, and it seemed odd,” said Watkins, who now also teaches law to undergraduates at Kent State University. “He was offered a plea of nine months to a year, and he turned it down.” So the Stowe, Ohio, attorney began to interview witnesses, including the girl and her family. He discovered that the girl’s account of the rape stemmed from her parents’ discovery of a “hickey” on her neck. He then learned that it had come from a sexual encounter with another girl. At the February 2001 hearing to overturn the verdict, Watkins arranged for the victim to testify that she had misidentified Williams. She did so, and added an apology to Williams. The other girl, now an adult, also testified at Williams’ rehearing about their sexual involvement the night of the alleged rape. Summit County, Ohio, prosecutor Sherri Bevans Walsh decided not to retry Williams because the recantation meant her office would not be able to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Watkins said his investigation has led him to believe that the girl’s entire story of the rape was invented to cover for her lesbian relationship. “There’s no physical evidence,” noted Watkins, who said that tests of the girl’s underwear didn’t prove that she had had sexual intercourse at all. WHAT THE LAW GIVES Ohio’s compensation statute requires Williams to obtain a declaration of innocence in a special proceeding before a jury. He would then be able to apply to the Ohio Court of Claims for compensation. The Ohio statute permits a minimum compensation of $25,000 a year in lost wages and punitive damages. A bill pending would raise that figure to $40,000 a year. Watkins is seeking about $600,000 for Williams but must first obtain the declaration of his innocence from a jury. Walsh has not decided whether to oppose that court proceeding. She called the woman’s recantation weak and said that in an interview after the proceeding the woman gave several conflicting accounts of what happened. Walsh said she intends to interview the alleged victim again before making that determination. “He may well be innocent and if that’s the case, he should be compensated. I just want to be sure about what happened,” she said. Watkins says the financial recovery for Williams has been delayed by the difficulty of tracking down the woman who was the victim. She has repeatedly moved since the proceeding last year. He noted that the standard at trial for a declaration of innocence is very high, and said that her testimony is essential to winning the declaration of innocence. Watkins expects further delays in obtaining the compensation because the proceedings, which he initially filed in criminal court, must now be filed in civil court. According to Pace University School of Law professor Adele Bernhard, 16 states and jurisdictions have statutes promising reimbursement for wrongfully imprisoned people. Those include Alabama, California, Washington, D.C., Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, Wisconsin and the U.S. federal courts. Bernhard says the statutes, which have developed over more than 50 years, provide an important service. “Recovery is so difficult, so that what these statutes do is provide a fallback for people like him,” Bernhard says, “when it’s really a mistake or the witness manipulated the situation.”

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