John Jerome White was 19 years old when a Georgia judge sentenced him to life plus 40 years in prison for breaking into a 74-year-old woman’s home and raping her. Exonerated after DNA testing years later, he walked free in a state that does not have laws on the books to compensate the wrongfully convicted upon their release from prison.
“I was 48 when I got out. It was rough,” said White, who’s now 61. “If it hadn’t been for my family and the people who donated their time to help me, I just don’t know. … A lot of things were difficult, and the state of Georgia did nothing to help me.”
White, who wrongly served more than two decades behind bars, was exonerated in 2007 after the Georgia Innocence Project stepped in and had the hair samples that helped lead to his conviction retested. Another man was charged for the crime.
White is one of 2,810 men and women to date who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes in the United States, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Now federal lawmakers are pushing to increase the federal statute for compensating exonerees, as the Innocence Project, along with innocence organizations across the country, advocates for a universal wrongful conviction compensation law.
Thirty-six states and Washington, DC, have laws on the books that offer compensation for exonerees, according to the Innocence Project. The federal standard to compensate those who are wrongfully convicted is a minimum of $50,000 per year of incarceration, plus an additional amount for each year spent on death row. The current federal statute, which was endorsed by then-President George W. Bush in 2004, also serves as a model for states to create their own laws to compensate exonerees. Of the 36 states with compensation laws, nine offer more than $50,000 per year – including Washington, DC, which offers $200,000 per year, according to the Innocence Project.
Late last month, Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of California introduced the Justice for Exonerees Act, which would amend the federal statute to increase the compensation amount to a minimum of $70,000 per year. Eighteen Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill, including Reps. Hank Johnson of Georgia and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, both states without wrongful conviction compensation laws.
“While my legislation takes an important step forward, let me be clear that no amount of money could ever be enough to make up for the time and opportunities stolen from exonerees,” Waters said in a news release.
Johnson said in a statement to CNN on Tuesday that he’s proudly supporting the bill and “as a former defense attorney, I know that there are tens of thousands of Americans who are currently in prison for crimes they did not commit.”
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, since 1989 there have been 291 wrongfully convicted men and women in the 14 states without such compensation laws. Of those, Pennsylvania accounts for 103 of the exonerees.
Since December 2018, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner has overseen 22 exonerations of 21 individuals – one of whom was wrongfully convicted and exonerated in two separate murder cases.
Jane Roh, the communications director for Krasner’s office, told CNN in a statement that “it is simply a matter of fairness that when the criminal justice system gets it wrong and a person loses their freedom due to police and/or prosecutorial misconduct, that an effort to repair the harm caused is made. Compensation for wrongfully incarcerated and convicted individuals is more than an obligation of justice; it is another tool by which the public may hold elected officials accountable.”
Exonerees in most states without compensation laws must find lawmakers to introduce private bills on their behalf to get considered for compensation from the states.
White told CNN that he went through the arduous process of seeking compensation from the state of Georgia for more than two years. The first bill presented to the Georgia legislature for more than $700,000 in compensation was rejected.
“They reconstructed the bill to $500,000 and I have to follow all these rules. I had to make promises get a job, do community service, I can’t get rearrested, and if I violate any of these conditions, they were going to revoke the money. … It’s like I’m on parole or probation even though I’m free,” White told CNN.
In Oregon, Luke Wirkkala says the only recourse exonerees in the state have is to file civil lawsuits with “no guarantee you’ll win.”
Wirkkala, 40, was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in connection with the killing of a home invader before he was acquitted in April following a second trial.
“I had eight years taken from me. My life was completely destroyed. I lost my home, got divorced. I’m trying to rebuild my life. It’s a huge adjustment trying to come back into the real world,” Wirkkala told CNN. “Most people you meet in prison, they come from broken homes, no family ties, so when they come out, they come out with nothing.”
Blumenauer told CNN that while he’s glad to back the federal provision, “at the same time, we must take steps in Oregon to ensure those wronged by the state courts also have money and resources to get back on their feet.” The Democrat said he plans to discuss such efforts with Oregon state lawmakers.
Rebecca Brown, the director of policy for the Innocence Project, told CNN that even some existing wrongful conviction compensation laws should be overhauled at the state level.
“These laws are written in such a narrow way that they perversely exclude innocent people from being compensated … they are drafted in such a way that it is just incredibly difficult and many wrongfully convicted people talk about the claim process as retraumatizing because they have to reprove their innocence, yet again, to get compensated,” Brown told CNN.
In New Jersey, she said as an example, an individual can get compensated in the case of a false confession, but the state prohibits exonerees from compensation if they pleaded guilty to the crimes they were exonerated for.
“What we are often up against is, we are seeking funding for a very narrow group of people and when you are competing with other budget items, it’s incredibly difficult … so it has to become a public outcry for it to be taken up,” Brown says.
Wirkkala echoed that call, saying, “The movement to make this universal in this country needs to happen.”