Lawmakers sign off on pay for two wrongfully convicted Georgians

A group of lobbyists watch the sessions on Sine Die, the last day of the General Assembly at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Monday, April 4, 2022.   Branden Camp/ For The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

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A group of lobbyists watch the sessions on Sine Die, the last day of the General Assembly at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta on Monday, April 4, 2022. Branden Camp/ For The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

Legislators refused to advance broader overhaul sought by advocates

State legislators cleared compensation packages early Tuesday for two Georgians who served decades in prison for crimes they didn’t commit while declining to advance a broader measure that would have overhauled the way the state pays the wrongfully convicted.

Senators unanimously cleared HR 593 and HR 626 shortly after midnight, during the final moments of this year’s legislative session.

The former would pay 60-year-old Dennis Perry $1.23 million for the 20 years he spent in state custody. Perry, who was imprisoned for a 1985 double murder near Brunswick, was exonerated last year after DNA evidence and extensive reporting from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution tied another suspect to the crime scene.

ExploreLive: Track major Georgia bills

HR 626 would similarly pay Kerry Robinson $480,000 for the 18 years he served for a 2002 Moultrie rape he didn’t commit. He was freed in 2020 using DNA evidence.

The lawyers for both exonerees initially sought larger compensation packages from lawmakers to account for lost wages, personal injury, emotional distress and other damages, but budget writers indicated there was only so much room in the state budget.

ExploreLawmakers seek to overhaul process for paying wrongfully convicted

Meanwhile, legislators opted to kill HB 1354, which would have standardized the way the state compensates such exonerees. The legislation overwhelmingly passed the Georgia House but was shelved in a Senate committee last week after key Republicans suggested it needed more vetting. House supporters added the language to another bill early Monday, but it wasn’t called up in either chamber.

The measure’s bipartisan sponsors argued that the way the state currently compensates the wrongfully convicted is inefficient, inconsistent and often gets bogged down by politics. They proposed paying exonerees $50,000 to $100,000 per year spent behind bars and creating a panel of appointees, all subject matter experts in wrongful convictions or criminal justice, to vet their compensation claims.

Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, one of the bill’s lead sponsors, said supporters would try again next year.

“We need to reform how we handle compensating the innocent so that the focus is on the exonerees and not on politics,” the former prosecutor said. “The foundation for change has been laid, and I believe our proposal—or something similar—will pass next year.”

Earlier this spring, lawmakers had shelved a compensation bill for a third exoneree, Ashley Jordan, who was 12 years into a life sentence when the Georgia Supreme Court overturned her conviction last year.

OUR REPORTING

After Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporting found issues with the alibi of a previous suspect, lawyers representing Dennis Perry, the man convicted of the double murder, decided to conduct a DNA test. DNA found at the scene matched that of the old suspect, the lawyers said. The GBI reopened the murder investigation and formed a task force. On July 17, 2020, the DNA results led a judge to overturn Perry’s conviction. Perry was released on bond July 23, 2020, and was exonerated on July 19, 2021.

ExploreRead the AJC's investigation of the Dennis Perry case

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