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Wrongfully convicted former inmates plead with lawmakers for compensation

by Ryan Pivoney | February 21, 2023 at 4:03 a.m.
Julie Smith/News Tribune photo: Lamar Johnson is shown testifying before a Missouri Senate committee Monday, Feb. 20, 2023, during which he asked the senators to pass legislation requiring compensation to exonerees following a release from prison. Johnson, who was just released on Valentine's Day of this year, and others, who have been exonerated for the crimes for which they were imprisoned but did not commit, testified before the committee during the hearing. Seated next to Johnson is Sen. Brian Williams, D-St. Louis, sponsor of legislation.

Lamar Johnson was released from prison a week ago after spending nearly three decades behind bars for a murder he did not commit.

Because he wasn't proven innocent by DNA evidence, however, Missouri won't grant him compensation for his wrongful conviction.

"While I have regained my freedom, I have come out with nothing but the clothes purchased for me by my friends and my attorneys," Johnson testified Monday before the Senate Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee in support of bills that would expand opportunities for wrongful conviction compensation claims. "I return home free but with no ID, no drivers license, no credit history, no work history, no rental history. I have no car, no furniture, no place to call home."

"Nothing can ever give me back what I have lost. I will never get back the time I should have had with my daughters, the career I could've had or the holidays with my loved ones," Johnson continued. "But this bill would provide the security for me to get on my feet and to be there for my family in ways I could not."

Re-entering society after being locked up for 28 years is overwhelming, Johnson said. There's a lot to learn, he said, and not many resources available to help. His only financial support at the moment is a GoFundMe account created by his attorneys.

Johnson was among five prison exonerees to testify in support of two bills that would redefine the standards Missouri uses to determine compensation for those who were wrongfully imprisoned in the state, most notably by removing the requirement that DNA testing be used to prove innocence. None of the witnesses present Monday testified against the bills.

Senate Bills 146 and 253 would allow wrongfully convicted Missourians to file a compensation claim if they were imprisoned for a felony, their conviction was reversed or vacated, they weren't an accessory to the crime and did not commit perjury or fabricate evidence.

Under the proposed bills, those receiving the claim would be eligible for $179 per day they were in prison, up to $65,000 per year. The state would also pay at least $25,000 per year the individual was subject to post-release supervision, such as parole or having their name on the sex offender registry.

Compensation would be paid through an initial payment of no more than $100,000 or 25 percent of the total award amount, with subsequent payments of no more than $80,000 occurring each year after. Those who were wrongfully convicted would also be entitled to attorney's fees and court costs and non-monetary relief, such as housing or tuition assistance and counseling.

The two bills largely mirror one another, except SB 146 defines tuition assistance as a waiver on a college's required tuition and fees and directs wrongful conviction compensation to come from the state legal expense fund.

If passed, the legislation would require formerly incarcerated folks to file a claim within two years of a pardon or a judge finding them not guilty.

An estimated cost for the program is less than $500,000 per year, according to fiscal notes attached to the bills. It would require two additional staff members in the state Attorney General's Office, which expects the proposals to "result in a significant increase in litigation," according to the fiscal notes.

Sen. Steven Roberts, a St. Louis Democrat and sponsor of SB 146, said there are "obvious flaws" in the way Missouri handles restitution for wrongful convictions. Roberts noted Johnson's case in 1994 didn't rely on DNA, forensic or ballistics testing, adding "these types of tests were still in their infancy in 1995."

Roberts said the state can't put a price on the years it took from Johnson but that his bill is a start.

Sen. Brian Williams, D-St. Louis, said he sponsored SB 253 because the state needs to be thinking about how to put people who were wrongfully convicted on path to provide for themselves and their families.

Most of Monday's testimony revolved around the challenges exonerated offenders face when released from prison, with many describing their struggle to afford and access transportation, housing and medical and mental health care.

"It's a big wall to climb," said Keith Carnes, who was released from prison in April 2022 after serving more than 18 years on a false murder conviction.

Since his release about 10 months ago, Carnes said he's struggled to find housing, medical care and transportation to support his children. Transitioning back to society has had its "ups and downs," he said, "more downs than ups."

Carnes and Williams, the bill sponsor, said the state provides more resources to convicted offenders on parole than it does to people released from prison because they are innocent.

Joe Amrine was exonerated in 2003 after serving 27 years in prison, 17 of which were on death row. Amrine said the lack of services offered to Missouri exonerees is a punishment itself.

"I'm being punished because I wasn't guilty. It's just not fair," he testified. "I feel like I'm being punished twice for something I actually didn't ever do the first time."

Amrine said he's suffered every day since he was released about 20 years ago. Therapy is expensive and "death row does a lot to a man," he said. Amrine pleaded with lawmakers on the committee for help.

Ricky Kidd was wrongfully convicted for a double homicide and sentenced to life without parole when he was 21 years old. Kidd served 23 years in prison before he was exonerated in 2019.

"Despite all that I've lost, I haven't got a penny from the state that wrongfully imprisoned me," he said.

Kidd is now married and has a 2-year-old daughter. He said he's constantly worried about financial security and whether or not he has enough to support his family and the life he's trying to rebuild.

Expanding wrongful conviction compensation would ease those concerns, he said.

"For the first time in decades, I would not have to struggle or stress about how I'm going to survive, not just for the day but for the years to come," Kidd said. "I hope that you will pass this legislation so that I can finally get justice as well as closure."

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