61-year-old Lawrence McKinney initially received just $75 when his 1978 conviction was finally overturned in 2009. Upon reconsideration, a reluctant Tennessee Board of Claims approved the maximum $1 million payment.
When he was just 22 years old, Mr. McKinney received a 115-year sentence for his alleged role in the brutal double rape of a Memphis woman. Almost exactly thirty years later, DNA evidence conclusively established that Mr. McKinney was not in the woman’s bed on the night in question. Based on this evidence, a judge set aside his conviction and ordered his release. At the time, he received $75, about a half cent for every day he spent in prison. Mr. McKinney said it took him three months to cash the check because he had no ID.
In 2016, Mr. McKinney asked the parole board to overturn the conviction. But the committee unanimously voted against him. One member admitted that he ignored the DNA evidence and instead relied on the victim’s eyewitness identification, because “the victim’s descriptions to police matched McKinney’s description, to a tee.” A year later, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam pardoned Mr. McKinney. That decision enabled him to apply for compensation.
The state paid roughly a third of the money upfront; the remainder will come in $3,350 monthly installments for the next ten years.
Damages for Wrongful Incarceration
As this story illustrates, in many locations, wrongfully-convicted persons must fight hard for compensation. Roughly half the states in America have no laws whatsoever on the subject. In Tennessee, only persons who receive executive pardons are eligible for compensation. Even then, the statute of limitations is just one year.
New York, in contrast, has a very progressive victim compensation law. Wrongfully imprisoned individuals have two years to file financial claims based on any one of the following:
- Presidential or gubernatorial pardon,
- The sentencing court lacked jurisdiction,
- Prosecutorial or judicial misconduct,
- The defendant lacked mental capacity, or
- New exonerating evidence which was unavailable at trial.
There is no damages cap in the Empire State. The Court of Claims can award any amount of money that it considers fair under the circumstances.
The compensation could be substantial. Connecticut considers twice the state’s median household income to be a reasonable amount. New Jersey sets available compensation at twice the defendant’s last pre-incarceration annual income or $50,000 a year, whichever is greater. Any award should reflect lost income, loss of consortium (companionship), and the almost unimaginable stress of lengthy incarceration.
Moreover, in addition to the above compensation, federal claims under Section 1983 are permissible and can result in financial recovery for the victim of $1,000,000.00 for each year the victim was incarcerated.
An attorney can accurately value your case then fight for an award that, to the greatest extent possible, adequately compensates you for your entire loss.
Grounds for Wrongful Incarceration
The above story also highlights some of the most common dilemmas in wrongful incarceration cases.
Cross racial identification is often an issue in these matters. To be as fair as possible, most police lineups feature six or eight individuals who are all roughly the same age, height, and weight. Many people are biologically incapable of making fine distinctions between people of different races. In other words, they really do all look alike.
CRA has nothing to do with racism. Even people who have lived among another race for years have problems making cross racial identifications. The issue is even worse in criminal law. In addition to CRA, the victim/witness usually only gets a partial look at the defendant for a brief moment in a dark room while under extreme emotional duress.
Eyewitness testimony itself is very controversial. There is ample evidence that such testimony is inherently unreliable, mostly because of the aforementioned factors. The issue comes up a lot. Eyewitness accounts are often the linchpins of circumstantial evidence prosecutions, and to question such testimony puts all these convictions in doubt. Therefore, prosecutors fight these arguments tooth and nail.
One of the most recent decisions on this subject came from Illinois. That state’s Supreme Court recently held that defendants could call expert witnesses to challenge the validity of eyewitness accounts. Since the 1990s, “we not only have seen that eyewitness identifications are not always as reliable as they appear, but we also have learned, from a scientific standpoint, why this is often the case,” the court explained.
Finally, there’s the issue of the bodily fluids or other biological evidence at the scene. Roughly a quarter of the nation’s overturned convictions rest almost exclusively on DNA evidence. These findings are a significant factor, or even a decisive factor, in many other cases. Incontrovertible scientific evidence is the best way to overcome the highly prejudicial effect of inaccurate eyewitness statements.
Wrongful incarceration victims are entitled to significant compensation for the long, long hours they spend behind bars. For a free consultation with an experienced civil rights attorney in New York, contact Napoli Shkolnik PLLC. We handle these kinds of cases on a nationwide basis.
Image: Innocence Project of Florida