Lawmakers seek to overhaul process for paying wrongfully convicted

Bipartisan effort would standardize compensation for exonerated
Dennis Perry, center, standing beside wife Brenda Perry gets emotional while thanking the team from the Georgia Innocence Project after they worked to get his release from 20 years behind bars, Thursday, July 23, 2020, in Nicholls, Ga. (Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlant

Combined ShapeCaption
Dennis Perry, center, standing beside wife Brenda Perry gets emotional while thanking the team from the Georgia Innocence Project after they worked to get his release from 20 years behind bars, Thursday, July 23, 2020, in Nicholls, Ga. (Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlant

Kerry Robinson spent 18 years in prison for a crime DNA later proved he didn’t commit. Dennis Perry was freed after 20 years in custody, also due to DNA evidence. Ashley Jordan was 12 years into a life sentence when the Georgia Supreme Court overturned her conviction last year.

They are among the four dozen Georgians who have been exonerated after wrongful convictions since the late 1980s, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. They now seek compensation from the state for their years wasted behind bars. For the relationships, careers and dreams erased by perjury, false accusations or confessions or misconduct by law enforcement officials.

Georgia lawmakers have for years wrestled with how to pay the wrongfully imprisoned, many of whom struggle to find job and pay bills after release.

Advocates say the state’s current procedure is arduous and inconsistent. Exonerees must navigate a byzantine process that can take months if not years to complete and sometimes fails due to broader political dynamics. For those ultimately paid, amounts and terms can vary greatly.

“It’s really not fair to... somebody for whom the system failed and failed in about the worst possible way,” said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, a lawyer and former prosecutor.

A bipartisan effort taking shape at the Georgia Capitol seeks to create a more uniform, consistent process. HB 1354 would set a ceiling and floor for what exonerees can be paid and establish a panel of experts to vet their claims.

Proponents say the measure would make Georgia’s system fairer and bring the Peach State in line with two-thirds of U.S. states and the federal government, which lay out exactly how much wrongfully convicted people should be paid based on the number of years served in prison.

Wrongful convictions are rare, but supporters say the legislation is important as advances in DNA testing lead to more exonerations.

“Money ultimately cannot compensate a person for that lost time,” said House Judiciary Chairman Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, who’s co-sponsoring the measure with Holcomb and two others. “But ensuring that we have a procedure in place for compensation questions is, I believe, good for all involved.”

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/AJC

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/AJC

‘Unequal and inequitable’

Under Georgia’s current process, each exoneree must petition the state for compensation. That requires winning the ear of a sympathetic lawmaker who can sign off on a claim before the state Claims Advisory Board, which evaluates requests.

Critics say the board, which falls under the Secretary of State’s office and includes designees from the departments of Human Resources, Transportation and Corrections, wasn’t designed to process claims from people who were grossly mishandled by the criminal justice system. They say the board looks at issues through the narrow lens of whether a state agency was culpable. Because of that, the board has never recommended payment for a wrongfully imprisoned person, said Hayden Davis, a policy specialist at the Georgia Innocence Project, a nonprofit that works to correct and prevent wrongful convictions and is backing HB 1354.

In the past, the board has noted that while it did not find that the Department of Corrections was at fault for a person being wrongfully imprisoned, it has sometimes stated that an exoneree presented compelling evidence and that the legislature could approve compensation.

Once the board issues a recommendation, the General Assembly then must decide whether to appropriate money in the state budget for a compensation package.

That’s where the process has been particularly inconsistent, critics say. Lawmakers will scrutinize the underlying facts of an exoneree’s case to decide on compensation.

“That allows the opportunity for people to come in and make accusations that basically cannot be refuted because there’s no standards,” said Clare Gilbert, executive director of the Georgia Innocence Project. “It can begin to produce unequal and inequitable results, which we have seen over time.”

Over the years, the Georgia legislature has approved compensation bills for 10 exonerees, according to Gilbert’s organization. Some claimants have received close to $60,000 per year served behind bars. Others have gotten only half of that. Some compensation packages were subject to taxes and parole-like conditions like work requirements and drug testing, while others weren’t. About half of those bills were delayed due to political dynamics, and several others ultimately were not approved at all.

Replacement floated

Ideas for fixes have floated around the legislature for years but have never picked up much steam. Some lawmakers have been wary of giving up control of the compensation process or setting a standard level for payments, especially in the case of an exoneree who might have been convicted of other felonies that could not be cleared with new evidence.

But a number of high-profile cases have brought attention to the process, including Perry, the 60-year-old who was imprisoned for a 1985 double murder he didn’t commit near Brunswick, and the three former soldiers stationed at Fort Stewart who became caught up in a murder case while visiting Savannah for a bachelor party.

HB 1354, which is expected to be considered on the House floor in the coming days, would make major changes to the way Georgia pays the wrongfully convicted.

The legislation would create a panel of political appointees — all subject matter experts in wrongful convictions or criminal justice — under the Claims Advisory Board to vet compensation claims. The panel would then recommend a dollar figure to the chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, who would include that in his budget request to lawmakers.

Credit: Ben Gray/AJC

Credit: Ben Gray/AJC

The measure would also set clear criteria for who can and can’t qualify for compensation — exonerees would have to prove their innocence to be eligible — and establishes a range of $50,000 to $100,000 for how much each person should expect to receive based on each year they spent wrongfully imprisoned. (Advocates say that other states on average give exonerees about $70,000 per year served in prison.)

“It’s a way of ensuring the panel has the discretion necessary to take into account individual circumstances while also ensuring that we have people who are not really under compensated,” said Davis.

Three seeking compensation

As the bill overhauling the compensation process moves through the legislative process, Perry, Robinson and Jordan, who was formerly known by her married name of Ashley Debelbot, are each seeking payments using the traditional legislative channel.

Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections

Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections

Perry, who was exonerated after DNA evidence and extensive reporting from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution tied another suspect to the crime scene, is calling for $1.4 million in restitution for the “loss of liberty, personal injury, lost wages, injury to reputation, emotional distress, and other damages.” Robinson is seeking $551,000, while Jordan is requesting $840,000.

All three cases were heard by the Claims Advisory Board last month and all were denied, said Phil Holladay, Perry’s attorney.

Perry, 60, is unable to work due to long-festering back problems, Holladay said, but he is the primary caretaker of his mother-in-law and two elderly relatives, along with two great-grandchildren under the age of 5.

Holladay knows that some critics could recoil at the dollar amount his client is requesting, but he said he’s sure that “there’s not a person who would take any amount of money to trade places with Dennis” and spend 20 years in prison.

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlant

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlant

The National Registry of Exonerations lists 47 Georgians who have been exonerated since 1989. The total number of exonerees is likely slightly higher, according to Hayden Davis, policy specialist at the Georgia Innocence Project.

Only a fraction of those people have sought compensation from the state for being wrongfully convicted.

Ten Georgians have been awarded state money in the last two decades, according to Davis, and the claims of several others were rejected by the legislature. The average award has been $39,000 per year of incarceration, though some people have received far more or less, some with preconditions and others without.

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