It’s a sight that has become more frequent in courthouses around the country: newly exonerated defendants, now free after years or even decades behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit, joyously hugging relatives and attorneys and posing for news cameras.
And it has also become more common to see those same parties back in court—this time as plaintiffs—seeking compensation for the years they’ve lost from the state and local governments that imprisoned them.
“A wrongful conviction totally and utterly ruins a person’s life—their familial relationships, their freedom, their ability to make a living, friendships, everything.” said Ilann Maazel, a partner at Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady who works civil rights cases and a New York Law Journal columnist. “It’s the most complete loss of civil rights you can have short of death.”
2016 was yet another year of record-breaking settlements and awards paid out by state and local governments to former prisoners who managed to have their convictions thrown out, with several from various parts of the country surpassing eight figures.
In a decision issued in March to reduce a jury’s $18 million award for Alan Newton, who spent 12 years in prison before being cleared of a 1984 rape and robbery in the Bronx, to $12 million, now-retired Southern District Judge Shira Scheindlin said that $1 million per year is the “upper boundary” for cases without mitigating factors such as the fact that the exoneree was a juvenile when convicted or that they had a clean criminal record (Newton was an adult and was legally jailed for a similar felony).
But while wrongful convictions may ultimately prove to be costly for local and state governments, for exonerees who pay the cost of lost relationships, missed celebrations or funerals and years wasted behind bars it is hard to quantify with a dollar amount.
Jeffrey Deskovic was convicted in 1991—when he was 17 years old—of the rape and murder of a high school classmate in Westchester County, and spent 16 hard years in prison, where he was targeted and abused by fellow inmates. Once he was nearly killed when he was bludgeoned with a 10-pound weight plate.
He was cleared by a DNA analysis and, in the following years, he won $8 million from settlements with New York state and Westchester County, a $5.3 million settlement from Peekskill. He also won a $41.7 million verdict against Putnam County in the Southern District, and, according to the terms of an agreement between the parties, was awarded a $10 million settlement with Peekskill.
But the money doesn’t make up for what he lost while in prison and what he suffered through, he says.
“It’s not the mere absence of freedom,” said Deskovic, now an advocate for the wrongfully convicted and a 1L at Pace University Elisabeth Haub School of Law in White Plains “It’s the hell you’re going through while you’re there.”
• In addition to the award for Newton, New York played host to several multimillion-dollar verdicts and settlements for exonerees this past year, and the largest total sum—$40 million to be paid by New York City and $19.45 million by New York state—going to the “Soundview Five,” a Bronx quintet convicted of the 1995 killing of a cab driver who were released in 2012 and 2013 when the real killer came forward.
Other awards announced this year in the Empire State include a combined $12.45 million to the estate of William Lopez, who was wrongfully convicted of a 1990 murder and who died in 2014 while he was trying to fight the case.
The city and state also agreed to pay a combined $6.75 million to Roger Logan, who was convicted of a 1997 murder and freed after 17 years in prison.
Like many of the high-profile wrongful conviction cases that have played out in Brooklyn in recent years, Logan was put behind bars following an investigation involving now-retired retired New York City police Detective Louis Scarcella.
• The city of Los Angeles agreed to pay a combined $24 million to two men who were convicted of a 1979 robbery because of alleged misconduct by Los Angeles Police Department detectives. One of the exonerees, Kash Delano Register, was awarded $16.7 million, believed to be the largest settlement in an individual civil rights case in the history of the city, according to the Los Angeles Times.
• The state of Connecticut’s claims commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr. agreed to pay a total of $16.8 million to Carlos Asche, Darcus Henry, Sean Adams and Johnny Johnson, who were exonerated after spending 16 years behind bars for a gang-related shooting in 1996.
According to the Connecticut Law Tribune, a New York Law Journal affiliate, the size of the award drew criticism from state lawmakers and Vance, an attorney, announced his resignation from the post.
• Forrest County, Mississippi, agreed to pay $16.5 million to the families of three men who were wrongfully convicted of a 1979 rape and murder, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
One of the men, Larry Ruffin, died in prison in 2002, but was posthumously exonerated in 2011. Bobby Ray Dixon died in 2010 while awaiting his full exoneration, which finally came in December 2010. The third exoneree, Phillip Bivens, died in 2014.
• The city of Chicago Heights, Illinois, agreed to pay $15 million to Rodell Sanders, who was convicted of murder in 1995 with no physical evidence linking him to the crime, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Sanders’ conviction was based in-part on the testimony of Germaine Haslett, who said that both he and Sanders were involved with the gang-related shooting but later told a private investigator that he had been lying and that Sanders was not involved. Sanders was released in 2014.