Exonerated but not free: What do we owe the wrongfully convicted?
November 9, 2014 at 4:00 PM EST
In the US, state laws governing compensation for wrongfully convicted people vary significantly. While some states offer sizable packages for the exonerated, at least 20 offer nothing. And even for those that do, it may not be enough to make up for the emotional damage on those who've been wrongfully convicted. Hari Sreenivasan reports.
HARI SREENIVASAN: On any given afternoon in Braddock Pennsylvania on the outskirts of Pittsburgh you’ll find Drew Whitley in Stambolis Meat Shop helping to clean up. It’s about all he can do now. He takes valium for an anxiety that is very real for him.
What’s your life been like?
DREW WHITLEY: Some days I wake up with nightmares from the night before. You know I st ill have nightmares that I’m locked up. If they locked you up for getting life without parole for somethin’ you– for something they know you didn’t do, ain’t no tellin’ what they might do, far as I’m concerned.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So you are still living in fear of the justice system?
DREW WHITLEY: Oh, yes. I think I’ll be that way for the rest of my life.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Whitley’s fear and anxiety are based on fact. In 1989, Whitley, who had two previous convictions for theft and receiving stolen property, was convicted in the high profile murder of Noreen Malloy, a 22-year-old McDonald’s manager in Duquesne, Pennsylvania, another town near Pittsburgh. Although he always maintained his innocence.
DREW WHITLEY: I’m hoping the judge will grant the DNA test so the whole city of Pittsburgh can see that they got another innocent man.
HARI SREENIVASAN: He served 18 years in prison before DNA testing proved that hairs found in the killer’s ski mask did not belong to him. In 2006, he was set free.
Eight years later, Drew Whitley’s exonerated life is anything but easy. He gets a disability check for $700 a month. Just last year at age 58 he moved out of his mother’s home into a tiny two room apartment which costs him nearly half his check.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Did people assume that as soon as you were exonerated that you would be paid money?
DREW WHITLEY: Oh, yes. I did too. Me too. Yes, and it should be like that in every state.
HARI SREENIVASAN: But for all of his time spent wrongfully convicted in prison, all he left with was $100 that he earned working in the prison laundry. He didn’t get another penny from the state.
While 30 states do offer compensation to the wrongfully convicted, Pennsylvania along with 19 others offers nothing.
But even where there is compensation available, it is far from equal.
For example, Texas pays all exonerees $80,000 for each year they were wrongfully imprisoned, and the state is one of the few that also offers some medical care, life skills, and vocational training once they get out.
In New Hampshire, however, the maximum amount an exoneree is entitled to is $20,000, no matter how long the innocent person spent in prison.
The federal government has its own standard, offering $50,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration.
But while there have been efforts since at least 2009 in the Pennsylvania legislature to introduce a compensation statute, it’s gone nowhere.
Those who oppose a proposed compensation statute in Pennsylvania say there is “lack of regard for innocent victims.” and that they have been shown “no evidence of the need for such a law.”
BILL MOUSHEY: If anybody had any kind of morals in the government, when something like that happened, they should reach out and fix it. And that’s not what happens. They fight. They don’t fix.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Bill Moushey is a journalism professor at Point Park University in Pittsburgh and a Pulitzer Prize nominated reporter. For years he and his students have investigated cases of the wrongfully convicted in Pennsylvania. His reporting in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette helped get Drew Whitley exonerated, and he still gets upset by cases like Whitley’s.
BILL MOUSHEY: They used to have hopeless looks in their eyes when I’d look at ‘em across the table in a prison. But now they have helpless looks. And I think the helpless is a lot worse.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Why?
BILL MOUSHEY: Because they worked their whole lives in prison to get out of prison because they didn’t do whatever it was they were charged with. And then they get out and nothing is the way they appear– it should have been. They are just thrown on the scrapheap of life like they were the day they walked into prison. And the only difference is, is that they’re only prisoners of their own homes now and not of the state.
HARI SREENIVASAN: What kind of support services exist for them after they’re out?
BILL MOUSHEY: None.
HARI SREENIVASAN: In fact, Moushey says that when they are released those who have been convicted are in many ways better off than those who have been convicted but are later cleared.
BILL MOUSHEY: If you get paroled in Pennsylvania or any state, you’re put under a very restrictive series of covenants where, you know, they blood test you for drugs, they make you go get a job, they lead you to job search agencies, they show you how to build a resume, they show you a variety of other things that are supposed to help you meld back into society. When you get exonerated, they open the door and say, “See ya later.”
HARI SREENIVASAN: There is another option to try to get compensated: suing. That’s what Jeffrey Deskovic did. Like Drew Whitley, Deskovic was also wrongfully convicted of murder, and even had an additional charge for rape in New York state, and served almost as much time in prison before he was also exonerated in 2006 by DNA.
But he sued and was awarded more than $ 13 million dollars by the state of New York and the other municipalities involved in his conviction. And just last month, he won another multimillion dollar judgement.
Now, Deskovic is working in his own way to make sure people don’t have to go through what he did. He set up a foundation with his settlement money to help investigate other possible wrongful convictions across the country as well as offer financial and social support to other exonerees — sometimes with something as simple as a regular karaoke night with other guys who are wrongfully convicted.
JEFFREY DESKOVIC: It’s cathartic for me. And I feel like I’m making a difference. And I’m tryin’ to make my suffering count for something.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Even so, Deskovic says suing was an arduous process. After 16 years in prison, he spent another decade trying to make it right.
JEFFREY DESKOVIC: It took less than a year for me to get to a trial and to be wrongfully convicted on the criminal side. And in terms of getting a settlement, it took five years. And then to even get a civil rights trial, eight years. And then no social services in the meantime.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Drew Whitley sued in Federal Court alleging that his civil rights were violated. But the bar for proving misconduct is high. Even though a federal judge agreed that police were negligent, she ruled against his lawsuit saying, “A reasonable officer in 1989 would not have fair warning that conducting a reckless investigation was unconstitutional.”
So, even though there are admissions of mistakes and of shoddy police work, Drew Whitley is unlikely to get paid by Pennsylvania.
BILL MOUSHEY: Well, not unlikely. He’s not gonna get paid. He sued. The judge threw the case out. And there’s really no recourse, unless we had a compensation package. And we don’t.
HARI SREENIVASAN: If all this strikes you as arbitrary that one wrongfully convicted person is paid while another is not, it’s because our criminal justice system is largely decided by each individual state.
BERNARD HARCOURT: We’re dealing with, you know, 50 different states plus the federal government, right. And they take different views about these matters.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Bernard Harcourt is a law professor at Columbia University who studies punishment in the criminal justice system. He says that while compensation packages may be the more immediate and certain route for helping exonerees, multimillion dollar lawsuits could have a larger impact.
BERNARD HARCOURT: One of my fears really is that if you have a too straightforward system where anyone who is wrongfully convicted gets 50,000 dollars a year, we stop paying attention. You lose the impetus to really try to make sure that no one actually goes through this.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Having been through it himself, Deskovic says that preventing wrongful convictions is even more important than compensating exonerees after the fact.
JEFFREY DESKOVIC: It could never give me my years back. I would be willing to not only give the money back. I’d be willing to go into debt for that amount of money, maybe even double it, to have had my years back, to have had a normal– had– had a normal– life.
HARI SREENIVASAN: A normal life is all Drew Whitley was hoping for when he was exonerated.
What were your expectations for your life when you got out?
DREW WHITLEY: A good place to stay, food to eat and transportation. That’s all I really want outta life. Like everybody else. I don’t wanna– I don’t wanna be filthy rich or a millionaire, or whatever. I just want a place to stay. Roof over my head and transportation.