On May 21, 1980, Katherina Reitz Brow was stabbed to death in her home in Ayer, Massachusetts. Three years later, the man accused of the crime was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. That man, Kenneth (“Kenny”) Waters, would serve eighteen years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.
Kenny’s story doesn’t end there. He appealed his sentence a number of times unsuccessfully. Frustrated at the process and convinced of his innocence, his older sister, Betty Anne Waters, went back to school and earned her college degree and a law degree. Nearly two decades after his conviction, Kenny Waters was set free.
At trial, most of the evidence against Kenny had been circumstantial and, it was alleged, marred by false testimony and bungled police work. Betty Anne believed that DNA evidence, which had previously been withheld from the defense team, would be the key factor in his release. She worked with lawyers from the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, to have an independent lab examine the evidence. That DNA proved what Betty Anne knew: her brother did not kill Katherina Brow.
Waters’ extraordinary story attracted attention from Hollywood and was eventually made into a feature film, Conviction, starring Hillary Swank. His story is, however, not completely unique. Studies suggest that between 2.3% and 5% of those sitting in U.S. prisons are actually innocent; since 1989, more than 250 people in 34 states have been exonerated and released from prison through post-conviction DNA testing.
What happens to those folks whose lives have been turned upside down after a wrongful conviction? In addition to the years of lost time with friends and family, they walk into a world that may be completely different than before they were sent away. Some have never seen or used a cell phone and are wowed by a world that includes gadgets like iPads and Nooks. Others may be looking forward to things you don’t expect: in Kenny’s case, “He couldn’t wait to go to a Home Depot]. He had never been to such a big store before.”
Most, however, walk out to slim prospects and empty pockets. Up to 40% of those released from prison after being wrongfully incarcerated receive no compensation.
Some states – and the federal government in some circumstances – now offer compensation to exonerees. Many do not. Those that do not currently offer compensation to the wrongfully convicted are Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming.
Even those that do offer compensation may impose limits that make them essentially meaningless. New Hampshire, for example, caps compensation at $20,000 and Louisiana caps compensation at $250,000 irrespective of the length of time served. Montana only provides educational aid.
Florida became the most recent state to make news when it debated a bill that would grant William Dillon compensation in the amount of $1.35 million for spending 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit (that works out to $50,000 per year). That approaches the Innocence Project’s recommendations which suggest a “minimum of $50,000, untaxed, per year of wrongful imprisonment and $100,000, untaxed, per year on death row” based on the federal government’s standard created through the Innocence Protection Act of 2004.
Currently, what compensation is payable may be subject to federal income taxes. The law can be confusing depending on how the compensation is classified, an issue that some in Congress want to see resolved. This year, Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX) introduced H.R.4241, Wrongful Convictions Tax Relief Act of 2012. The purpose of the bill is to exclude from gross income “any civil damages, restitution, or other monetary award (including compensatory or statutory damages and restitution imposed in a criminal matter) relating to the incarceration of such individual” who was exonerated. The bill currently sits in committee.
I talked with Stephen Saloom, the policy director at the Innocence Project, about the bill. It doesn’t make sense, he pointed out, to tax funds paid to the wrongfully convicted as compensation from the government for taking years from their lives; it was as if they were being punished again. Saloom said that the bill was meant to “clarify” the notion that the compensation was not meant to be taxed.
I asked Saloom whether he found it odd that the bill would come out of Texas, which has become quite notorious for its high rates of wrongful convictions: since 1994, Texas has released at least thirty-nine innocent people who had collectively served over 500 years in prison for crimes they did not commit (report downloads as a pdf). Saloom was quick to say that he didn’t find it incongruent at all, noting that Texas had been working in recent years to change many of its policies and is, in fact, a leader in wrongful conviction reform. Today, the Lone Star State has one of the highest levels of compensation for the wrongfully convicted with options that include job and vocational training.
I wondered, then, if there was a political divide on the matter. Surprisingly, Saloom says that this is an issue that has broad, bipartisan support. He has found that folks, no matter their political persuasion, are disturbed at the idea of sending the wrong person in jail. “Nobody,” he says, “wants to see a wrongful conviction.”
And if being wrongfully convicted is bad enough, not being compensated for the resulting damages is similarly repugnant. There is a fairly universal sense that somehow, this thing that was so grossly unfair should be made better, that these folks deserve a second chance at happiness.
Sadly, Kenny’s story doesn’t have a happy ending. Six months after he was released from prison – having spent a third of his life behind bars – he died in a tragic accident.
Katharina Brow’s real murderer has never been found.