Wrongfully Jailed and Still Wronged after Release

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
-Guest Columnist- | Last updated: Jul 1, 2009 - 10:18:15 AM

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Byron Halsey recently had the happy and tragic distinction of being the 238th wrongfully convicted prisoner released from prison in the past two decades due to DNA testing.

Halsey was the 12th wrongfully convicted prisoner exonerated this year. In 1985, he was accused of the rape and murder of two Plainfield, New Jersey children. Halsey's nightmarish tale after the arrest is woefully familiar to others wrongfully accused. They face marathon police grilling, with threats and intimidation, a coerced confession, slipshod legal representation, a fast track trial, conviction, and then they are either dumped in a cell for life or receive the death penalty. Halsey faced the death penalty.

As with the overwhelming majority of the other wrongfully jailed, Halsey is African-American. Like most of them, he may not get a nickel for the almost quarter century of mental and physical suffering he endured. It's a situation that more than half the states have done absolutely nothing to correct for the falsely accused.

Halsey's only recourse is to file suit. And he faces towering hurdles if he tries to do that. One is the shield of sovereign immunity that states cloak themselves in to protect themselves from lawsuits. New Jersey would have to waive that immunity to allow a suit. Then he'll have to demonstrate his actual innocence. This means providing smoking gun proof that a district attorney rigged evidence with the intent to frame him. This almost never happens. Most wrongful convictions are obtained through alleged voluntary confessions, a verdict by an impartial judge or jury, eyewitness mistakes, and inadvertent misstatements of fact.

DAs chalk up wrongful convictions to a trail of unintentional errors and insist that no legal wrong was committed. In other words, the wrongful conviction and jailing is a moral wrong and injustice, but it is not a legally recognizable injury.

The 22 states that do provide for some compensation for a wrongful conviction hardly empty the till for the exonerated. The headline photo-ops of wrongfully convicted prisoners smiling, with relatives in tow, announcing multi-million dollar awards are the rarest of exceptions. Most states place hard caps on the payouts to the exonerated that range from $5,000 to $25,000. States such as Montana don't pay a penny directly to the exonerated but offer educational aid. Connecticut and Florida provide compensation but only on a case-by-case basis.

The exonerated must file a claim and wait a lengthy period of time for the claim to be processed. And if there's the slightest legal hitch in the circumstances of the conviction and release, the state may not pay.

The legal wrangle over compensation can drag on for months or even years. That's exactly what's happened in the case of the five young African-American and Latino men who were falsely accused and spent years in jail for the racially charged beating and rape of a White female jogger in New York's Central Park in 1989. New York is playing hardball with their claims for compensation.

In the states that don't offer payment for wrongful imprisonment, the exonerated must file suit. Halsey is suing New Jersey for unspecified damages for the two decades he spent in prison. This will take months to resolve and he faces tough odds. DAs rarely admit they prosecuted an innocent man, and even when they approve a release after near ironclad evidence that the prisoner was wrongfully convicted, they rarely offer any apology for the prosecution. This is partly to preserve the legal fiction of DA and criminal justice system infallibility, and partly not to open the floodgate to a hefty payout.

Halsey and the other wrongfully imprisoned could get some measure of financial relief for their suffering if Congress passes the Restitution for the Exonerated Act of 2009. The mostly Democratic backed legislation, though, will not give any direct payment to the exonerated. It provides two million dollars stretched out over four years for legal assistance, job and vocational retraining, health services, education, and child support. It's a help, but it does not hit a state in the only place that really counts: the pocketbook.

Money cannot substitute for the torment of being wrongfully jailed. It can't restore careers, jobs lost, and the huge sums that are spent on legal fees to prove innocence. It can't repair the wreck of families shattered. It can't make up for the years that the children of those falsely accused grew up without their fathers to nurture and mentor them to adulthood. And it certainly can't wipe away the scarlet letter of incarceration that's imprinted even on the falsely accused.

Halsey is angered that the state committed a monumental wrong against him and has not offered a dime to help him after his release. A dollar figure on his suffering won't change that, but it can at least serve as a reminder that the state must pay something for the wrong it inflicted on him. It's money that Halsey and the other wrongfully accused deserve to get.

(Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His weekly radio show, “The Hutchinson Report” can be heard weekly in Los Angeles at 9:30 a.m. Fridays on KTYM Radio 1460 AM and streamed live nationally on This commentary was distributed by New America Media.)