Corinne Ramey

How Do You Compensate 27 Years of Injust Inprisonment?

On Thursday, after spending 27 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit, Charles Chatman walked free. The world -- or the world outside of jail, that is -- was a different place than that he had left nearly three decades ago. After only using spoons in prison, he had to relearn how to use a knife to cut his steak. The judge for his case even had to teach him how to use a cell phone -- a newfangled technology, for 47-year-old Chatman -- so he could call his family. Chatman is the 15th wrongfully convicted prisoner in Dallas County who has been exonerated by DNA evidence since 2001.

Chatman's story is one of those tug-on-your-heartstrings tales of a man whose life spun out of his control. When he was 20, he was convicted of raping a young women who lived five houses down the street. The women, who was in her 20s, picked Chatman from a police lineup. Serology tests further validated her claim, showing that Chatman's blood type matched that found at the crime scene, despite the fact that the blood type also matched that of 40% of black males. Chatman was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to 99 years in prison based on a police lineup, unreliable blood evidence, and a jury that had only one black member. "I was convicted because a black man committed a crime against a white woman," Chatman said, as quoted in the Associated Press. "And I was available." Chatman had been working at the time of the crime -- a claim supported by his sister, who was his then-employer -- but the alibi didn't seem to matter.

During those 27 long years in prison, Chatman did have three chances at parole. The parole board always pressed him to confess, and when Chatman refused fabricate a story of his crime, the board refused to let him out. "Every time I'd go to parole, they'd want a description of the crime or my version of the crime," said Chatman. "I don't have a version of the crime. I never committed the crime. I never will admit to doing this crime that I know I didn't do."

Last year, when Chatman applied for DNA testing, he was told it would be risky. There was only one DNA sample available from the crime -- a small amount of DNA on a vaginal swab from the victim. Despite the fact that the single test would use all available DNA evidence and rule out the possibility of further tests, said his lawyer, Dallas County public defender Michelle Moore, Chatman decided to go ahead with the procedure. The DNA test showed that the rape had been committed by another man, and Chatman joyfully left the cell that had been his home for nearly three decades.

Chatman's exoneration, and the exoneration of other wrongfully convicted Dallas County prisoners, are largely the results of the the work of Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins and the Innocence Project. Since Watkins' election as the first African-American DA in Texas, he has worked to both reform the criminal justice system's methods of convicting criminals, and has utilized saved DNA in the Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences, a Dallas County laboratory, to overturn cases of wrongful convictions. The Times reports that Watkins' office, working with the Innocence Project, has reviewed 80 claims of wrongful conviction.

This past October, Watkins was the featured speaker at DMI's Marketplace of Ideas event on preventing wrongful convictions and exonerating the innocent. He spoke on how his goal wasn't just to get innocent people out of prison, but to reform the system to both prevent crime and prevent innocent convictions in the first place. "Maybe we should put our money on the front end instead of the back end," he said, noting that "we spend roughly $34 a day to imprison an inmate, and only $8 a day to educate our children." He says, that by talking about the "economic side of the criminal justice system," he's gotten even staunch conservatives to agree with his policies.

But back to Chatman. Now that Chatman's been exonerated, he'll disappear from the news (not that he got much coverage anyway, having been freed on the day of the Iowa caucuses). But Chatman's struggle is far from over. If he wants any kind of financial compensation for his decades spent in prison, he'll have to fight a system that makes it anything but easy for wrongly convicted people to obtain compensation for their time in jail. "The majority of people exonerated after proving their innocence have not been compensated for the injustice they suffered and the time they spent incarcerated," says the Innocence Project. And that doesn't even take into account other services that innocent ex-convicts desperately need for re-entry into society, like job training, health and legal services, and education. After all, if you've spent the majority of your adult life in prison (from age 20 to 47, anyway), how could you possibly have any employable skills or the abilities to procure health or legal services on your own?

The current system for compensation is pretty much a political morass. In some states, former inmates must file civil lawsuits to receive compensation. Currently, only 22 states plus D.C. have compensation statutes. In Texas, for example, "A wrongfully convicted person is entitled to $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration (and $100,000 per year if that person was sentenced to death), compensation for child support payments, and one year of counseling," according to the Innocence Project. But other states have less clear cut policies. In New York, for example, according to the Innocence Project, "If the wrongfully convicted person 'did not by his own conduct cause or bring about his conviction' and files a claim within two years of his pardon of innocence, he shall receive 'damages in such sum of money as the court determines will fairly and reasonably compensate him.'" That means that if innocent people plead guilty so as to get parole (like Chatman could have done) they can never receive any kind of compensation.

And then there are those 28 states that have no compensation policies at all, where many ex-inmates, after leaving jail, actually receive less of a safety net than that offered to actual guilty prisoners. In August of 2007, the Times researched the compensation claims of 206 people that have been exonerated by DNA evidence. They concluded,

"At least 79 — nearly 40 percent — got no money for their years in prison. Half of those have federal lawsuits or state claims pending. More than half of those who did receive compensation waited two years or longer after exoneration for the first payment. Few of those who were interviewed received any government services after their release. Indeed, despite being imprisoned for an average of 12 years, they typically left prison with less help — prerelease counseling, job training, substance-abuse treatment, housing assistance and other services — than some states offer to paroled prisoners."

The efforts of DA Watkins, the Innocence Project, and others who have worked to get more than 200 innocent people out of jail are nothing short of amazing. But, in creating this new population of innocent ex-convicts, they have generated a need not only for fair, equitable, and nationally consistent compensation laws, but for a guaranteed social safety net that will help wrongfully incarcerated to reintegrate into society. After all, if people like Chatman need to learn how to use cell phones and knives, might we expect they'll need job training, health insurance, and counseling, too?

Now out of jail, Chatman says he plans to help other innocent prisoners who are currently incarcerated. "I believe that there are hundreds, and I know of two or three personally that very well could be sitting in this seat if they had the support and they had the backing that I have," Chatman said. "My number one interest is trying to help people who have been in the situation I am in."

Corinne Ramey: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 4:36 PM, Jan 04, 2008 in Civil Justice
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This is clearly an instance in which "noneconomic damages" should be available. Besides the 27 years of employment this person missed out on, he has been irreparably robbed of so much life experience, and I hate to imagine the abuses he may have witnessed or even personally suffered while incarcerated. Thanks for this excellent post.

Posted by: Kia | January 4, 2008 7:16 PM

The criminal law is in utter failure.

Of the 23 million FBI Index Felonies a year, the smallest fraction of the smallest fraction ever gets punished. The criminal lover lawyer has granted his pal, the vicious thug, nearly total immunity, a professional courtesy. This rate is year over year, and has the foreseeability of the sun's rising in the East. The scienter dwarfs all other scienters by many orders of magnitude. It has the certainty of planetary orbits, and an immeasurably small scintilla of doubt, like the tiny wobble of a planetary orbit. The legal profession owes the class of the victims of crime $trillions.

On the other side of the coin, the rate of false conviction in death penalty cases is about 20%. Of those 20% innocents, a quarter were forced to confess. The public spends $1 mil a death penalty case to get it right. When the land pirate uses the word, evidence, it has nothing to do with any verifiable data, but with mind reading, other delusions, and a contest of fairy tales. The legal profession owes the innocent falsely convicted and executed victims of lawyer carelessness $billions.

Then, the criminal lover incompetents running this failed system, especially, the idiot judges, have granted themselves total discretion and immunity. There is no recourse for the crime victim. There is no recourse for the falsely convicted.

Statutes must exclude the criminal lover member of the criminal cult enterprise from all benches. These are amateurs. Professional judge schools should replace the sick values of the criminal cult enterprise that is the lawyer profession.

Prosecutors should be subject to injunction, and civil contempt consequences for failure, to competently prosecute their good friends, the vicious thugs.

In the meantime, a statute should end all judge immunities, all prosecutorial immunities. If a defense attorney gets a guilty party released, on a technicality, all subsequent crime victims of the client should be able to sue the defense attorney for an intentional tort.

Let the parties running the criminal law in utter failure, carry liability insurance, to compensate the victims of their carelessness, and intentional favoritism of their good friends, the vicious thugs. I support tort reform measures to protect these bumblers and careless incompetents from frivolous litigation.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | January 4, 2008 10:18 PM

The extreme injustice may serve to pierce the self-dealt immunities of the judges and prosecutors.

First, criminal defendants get compensation for their injuries from lawyer carelessness.

Civil defendants have procedural due process rights, so the Supreme Court has held four or more times.

So civil defendants should be allowed to sue the government for the misconduct of the lawyer that resulted in injury.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | January 5, 2008 2:40 PM

I do not know how to adequately compensate in situations like this and I refuse to speculate because there are too many variables involved - the person spending "x" years in prison unjustly might have otherwise been stabbed to death in a barroom brawl or run over by a truck so that one could argue that the victim benefited by being in prison since he/she is still alive.

I would simply figure out how much money the individual would REASONABLY been expected to earn and pay them that amount of compensation. Period

It should be pointed out that forensic sceince has come a long way in recent years - prosecutors and juries simply did not have the array of evidence in the past that is available today. Suing prosecutors is simply an exercise in speculation and we get enough specualtion passed off as fact by the trial bar as it is

Posted by: Paul W Dennis | January 9, 2008 7:04 AM