Last-ditch attempt for new wrongful conviction compensation process fails

Lee Clark, from left, Terry Talley and Joey Watkins were all men wrongfully convicted and served more than 20 years in prison before being exonerated. They visited the Capitol earlier this month to drum up support for bills that would compensate them for the years lost. (Arvin Temkar /



Lee Clark, from left, Terry Talley and Joey Watkins were all men wrongfully convicted and served more than 20 years in prison before being exonerated. They visited the Capitol earlier this month to drum up support for bills that would compensate them for the years lost. (Arvin Temkar /

A late-session attempt to revive an effort to standardize the compensation process for people who’ve been imprisoned on wrongful convictions in Georgia failed to make it across the finish line.

Six men who’ve been exonerated of crimes the courts now say they didn’t commit will not receive compensation from the state for the decades they spent in prison.

The House earlier this week attempted to amend a Senate bill to include language that aims to fix what lawmakers call a “very laborious process” that many are often hesitant to get involved with. But senators voted 31-20, with Democrats voting in opposition, to strip the compensation measure out of the bill.

State Rep. Scott Holcomb, an Atlanta Democrat, sponsored the compensation legislation last year, but it stalled in the Senate.

In the past two years, four state representatives have filed resolutions on behalf of the six men to compensate them between $910,000 and $1.8 million. The House has overwhelmingly passed all six resolutions.

And all six have stalled in the Senate. Four got hung up in Senate committees last year and were not revisited this session. The most recent, House Resolutions 901 and 902, never received a Senate committee hearing.

“I’m sorry for the exonerees,” Holcomb said. “The system failed them again.”

Senate Majority Whip Randy Robertson of Cataula opposed Holcomb’s measure. Robertson, a former sheriff’s deputy who led the effort to stop all compensation legislation last year, said he thinks the system has been “hijacked” by organizations such as the Georgia Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence and research to clear people’s names.

“They’re confusing exoneration with cases that are sent back,” Robertson said. “If a district attorney chooses not to retry a case because of a technicality, that’s not exoneration, that’s a technicality. If there’s not evidence that shows they’re not guilty of a crime, that’s not exoneration to me.”

The two chambers have tried to reach a compromise in recent years, but each comes from a vastly different view.

The House has taken the position that anyone who was wrongfully convicted, later exonerated and freed should receive compensation, whether the reason for the release is from DNA proof or by evidence the police, prosecuting attorney or judge did something wrong. It has overwhelmingly passed versions of compensation process overhauls the past several years.

Some Republican Senate leaders, on the other hand, have expressed different views. They believe exonerees should only be compensated if the government was at fault for the wrongful conviction — instances such as evidence tampering or shady prosecution.

“When discussing Rep. Holcomb’s bill in committee in the past, the Senate and House had such vastly different starting points, I didn’t see how we could move forward,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Brian Strickland, a McDonough Republican who has been supportive of the framework of Holcomb’s efforts in the Senate.

Under Georgia’s current process, once a judge or prosecutor has thrown out the charges against someone who had been convicted, they must find a legislator who is willing to sponsor a resolution that would compensate them, a process that often gets bogged down by politics.

They must also present their case to an advisory board under the secretary of state’s office that’s designed to process smaller claims from people harmed by state agencies before it comes before the Legislature. The board does not have guidelines for wrongful conviction compensation.

Holcomb’s measure would have created a panel of appointees, all experts in wrongful convictions or criminal justice, to vet compensation claims while laying out clear guidelines for who qualifies. It also would have required that those who have been exonerated are compensated at a figure between $60,000 and $120,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment.

The recommendation would then go to the state Supreme Court’s chief justice for approval and be funded through the judicial budget.

Robertson tabled all of the compensation legislation last year, he said, so he could work on his own version of a bill to revamp the process. Robertson said he is still working on his proposal to roll back some of the General Assembly’s oversight of the compensation process.

For individual payments, once resolutions pass both chambers, the money has to be placed in the state budget. This year, that money won’t be included.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Blake Tillery, a Vidalia Republican, said the majority party takes the issue of compensating people who’ve been exonerated seriously.

“We’re very concerned about wrongful convictions and wrongful prosecutions,” he said. “There’s a lot of concern in our body that we may have 21 new resolutions to consider next year.”

Last week, three of the men who spent decades in prisons for crimes the system said they didn’t commit visited the Capitol in hopes of drumming up support for themselves, but mostly for changing the way the state determines compensation, they said.

They were in the Senate on Thursday when senators removed the language that would have allowed them to petition for compensation.

“Even though I struggle daily and I live (check to check), I think there’s a higher calling here,” said Joey Watkins, a Rome resident who served more than 22 years for a 2000 slaying the courts later determined he did not commit. “I think it’s to try to help change something. That’s why I’m here. Not so much for myself.”

Watkins was released from prison almost a year ago.

Holcomb’s bill to change the process and all six resolutions seeking compensation for those who’ve been wrongfully convicted were assigned to a Senate budget subcommittee. That subcommittee did not hold hearings for this year’s two new resolutions, something that frustrated state Rep. Katie Dempsey, a Rome Republican who sponsored the compensation resolutions for Watkins and Silver Creek resident Lee Clark. Clark was exonerated nearly two years ago after being wrongfully convicted in a 1996 killing.

Having been on the other side of the compensation question as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Dempsey said it was an honor working with Watkins and Clark.

“I’ve listened to the appeals (for compensation),” Dempsey said. “I want to help them be able to take a step forward in their lives. It’s been hard not getting a hearing in the Senate because we are holding people’s lives — that were found to be innocent — in our hands.”