Remedying injustice for the wrongfully convicted does not end when they are released
Devonia Inman was 23 years old when he was sentenced to life in prison without parole for the 1998 robbery and murder of the manager of a Taco Bell in Adel, Ga. He was convicted because a jailhouse informant testified that Inman had confessed while awaiting trial. There was no physical evidence linking him to the crimes.
On Dec. 20, 2021, after serving more than 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Inman walked out of the Augusta State Medical Prison, making him the last wrongfully convicted person to be released in the United States during 2021. He was exonerated after newly discovered DNA evidence, as well as other evidence the prosecutor had illegally kept from the defense, revealed that another man had committed the crimes.
The National Registry of Exonerations reports that 2021 was a relatively busy year in the business of remedying the pervasive injustice of wrongful conviction in this country. By year’s end, 133 people had been freed from prison where they had been held for a crime they did not commit. That is more than one person every three days.
But 2021 was not an outlier. Every year since 2012, the number of exonerations has exceeded 100.
Despite its role in Inman’s case, DNA plays a small though not insignificant role in the quest to undue those miscarriages of justice, accounting for 375 of the 2,993 exonerations that have occurred since 1989. More pervasive are discoveries of new evidence, witnesses who recant their testimony, and revelations about prosecutorial misconduct.
While some might think that exonerations prove that “the system works,” Americans should take little solace from the fact that such large numbers of prisoners are freed every year.
Remedying the injustice of wrongful convictions does not end when the jailhouse door opens and the wrongfully convicted walks to freedom. For most of the exonerated that is only the first step on a long and painful journey to rebuild their shattered lives.
And the governments whose culpable negligence led to their wrongful convictions often do little or nothing to aid in that process. True, 37 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government offer some kind of compensation for the wrongfully convicted, but that leaves 13 states with no compensation laws.
Even where compensation is offered, the process for getting it is arduous and time consuming. It generally takes years to complete.
Exonerees may pursue compensation claims in three ways: suing state actors, lobbying state legislatures to pass private compensation bills, or filing for compensation under a state statute.
In each of these systems, exonerees bear the burden of action. When exonerees do sue, file statutory claims, or lobby legislators, none of those things leads either to adequate monetary compensation or to the kind of social services needed to help exonerees successfully transition to life outside prison.
That fact was driven home late in the year by the well-publicized release of Kevin Strickland, who served 43 years in a Missouri prison for a crime he did not commit. Despite this grievous wrong, the state provided Strickland no compensation and no help.
Georgia, the state where Inman was falsely convicted, is another of the states that provide no compensation and no help at all when the release a victim of a miscarriage of justice.
Exonerees like Inman are dependent on the kindness of strangers who step up to the plate to help them get back on their feet and rebuild their lives.
Across the country a few organizations and private individuals work to fill the void when exonerees are freed.
One of the leaders in this effort is Jason Flom, a well-known executive in the music business. Flom is known among exonerees as “the godfather of help.” As Douglas DiLosa, who served 14 years in prison for a murder he did not commit and who now works for The First 72+ helping other exonerees, told me, “There is no one else who does as much for exonerees as Jason.”
For two decades, Flom has been a board member for the Innocence Project and essentially a one-person social services agency. He has provided significant help to well over 100 exonerees. Among other things, he has paid for clothing, automobiles, and housing, and in some cases has subsidized employment.
Today Flom’s name is passed by word of mouth from one exoneree to another. He is the person they call when they have nowhere else to turn.
Flom’s quiet help for individuals also has a public face in advocacy work. He hosts a podcast, “Wrongful Conviction,” where he interviews exonerees and people who are still in jail despite having strong innocence claims. He uses these interviews to publicize acts of injustice and to bring attention to the failure of government to provide help.
Along with other activists and advocacy groups, Flom is working to get states and the federal government to improve compensation systems for exonerees.
Such efforts include federal legislation, The Justice for Exonerees Act, which was introduced last year by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and which would increase the funds for which an exoneree in the federal system is eligible from $50,000 to $70,000 per year of unjust incarceration.
That is an important step forward, but the Waters bill does not go far enough.
What is urgently needed is the kind of universal wrongful conviction compensation system proposed by the Innocence Project. Such a system would ensure that people like Devonia Inman and Kevin Strickland are not left out in the cold because they live in states that refuse to take responsibility for injustices that occur in their jurisdictions.
That system should provide for automatic payments on release, both a lump sum payment as well as an additional amount in the form of an annuity for every year a wrongfully convicted person spends in prison. The amount of loss and damage of years spent behind bars for a crime someone did not commit is the same regardless in which part of the country it occurs.
A universal compensation system also should require official acknowledgement when a wrongful conviction is uncovered. It should guarantee that exonerees are enrolled in any state and federal health and welfare benefits programs for which they are eligible, and it should provide a comprehensive array of psychological and social services.
Unjust convictions and the havoc they wreak on the lives of innocent people are a national problem requiring a comprehensive, national solution.
Only such a solution will ensure that responsibility for remedying the injustice of wrongful conviction is assumed by all of us, not just people like Flom who have for so long valiantly stepped into the breach.
Austin Sarat is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College. He is author of numerous books on America’s death penalty, including “Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty.” Follow him on Twitter @ljstprof.
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