What Do We Owe Exonerated Inmates?

Why justice demands full atonement when we punish the innocent


Editor's Note: Steve Chapman is on vacation. The following column was originally published in August 2006.

Michael Evans won an Illinois lottery. The state presented him with a check for $162,000. But forgive him if he's not as grateful as most Lotto winners. His payout didn't come to him because he selected some winning numbers. It came because he spent 27 years in prison for a rape and murder committed by someone else.

That amount of money wouldn't be a bad return on a $2 wager. But for the time he spent behind bars, it comes to about $6,000 a year. He could have made more working for minimum wage.

Evans thought someone owed him more than that for all he endured. He filed a $60 million lawsuit against 10 former Chicago police officers whom he accused of framing him. But a federal jury rejected his claim, which meant Evans got nothing—except that state check. The maximum allowed by law, it amounts to less than $17 per day he spent behind bars.

He took the verdict hard, saying, "In my case, I don't really see how justice has been done." Bad as his treatment was, though, it could have been worse. Illinois furnishes modest compensation for inmates who are exonerated. But many states that allow compensation offer even less—and most states provide nothing at all.

Some states are reasonably generous. Utah provides $70,000 for each year spent on death row. Tennessee allows awards as high as $1 million. Alabama, Vermont, Michigan, and Hawaii offer up to $50,000 for each year of mistaken imprisonment. California pays $100 per day.

But others think inmates should be content with breathing fresh air. Wisconsin caps payouts at $25,000, and New Hampshire has a limit of $20,000. Montana grants only tuition, room, and board at any community college in the state.

And 29 states have no laws aimed at making the injured person whole. In those places, if you get locked up by mistake and want financial compensation, you have to go to court or to the legislature, neither of which is obligated to give it. All you're guaranteed in Florida, for example, is $100 and a bus ticket, which is provided to the guilty as well as the innocent.

Florida's legislature has sometimes approved financial redress, but, as in other states, obtaining it can be harder than getting off death row. Freddie Pitts and Wilbert Lee spent 12 years in prison before being pardoned in 1975. But the state rebuffed 19 separate petitions before finally agreeing to give them each $500,000—in 1998.

Lawsuits can be even harder. To win damages, the former inmate has to demonstrate not only that he was convicted in error, but that the police were guilty of misconduct. Ineptitude or carelessness isn't enough.

Even states that have set up systems for compensation don't necessarily make it easy. Illinois is one of several states that say it doesn't suffice to be cleared by DNA or other compelling evidence: A pardon by the governor on grounds of innocence is also required.

Discovering wrongful convictions is not exactly a freakish occurrence anymore. Since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, 123 death row inmates have been cleared. Many other inmates have been exonerated of lesser felonies, usually through DNA analysis.

It's hard to envision a more nightmarish experience than being convicted of a heinous crime that you didn't commit and then sent to prison for years or decades. On top of this, death row inmates spend every hour anticipating the day when they will be escorted from their cells, strapped to a gurney, and injected with lethal poison. When freed, inmates face huge hurdles in trying to rebuild the lives that were taken from them. Most of us wouldn't go through that for all the money in Microsoft.

The 5th Amendment to the Constitution says the government may not take your property without paying just compensation. But if you're entitled to fair market value for being deprived of your house, shouldn't losing a large share of your time on Earth be worth more than $6,000 per year?

In Illinois and most other places, the answer is no. But if justice demands that we punish the guilty, it also calls for full atonement when we punish the innocent.