How much should the state of Wyoming compensate someone for wrongfully imprisoning them?
Senate File 30, sponsored by the Joint Judiciary Interim Committee, would pay people exonerated by DNA evidence $100 per day of imprisonment, up to a maximum of $500,000. The payments could not exceed $50,000 per year, up to 10 years.
Rep. Bob Nicholas (R-Laramie) thinks the amount in SF 30 is too high, and he proposed an amendment during Tuesday’s second reading of the bill to limit the total to $250,000. He said the amount shouldn’t be greater than the compensation for negligently taking someone’s life under the Governmental Claims Act.
“If a person negligently runs you off the road and kills you and your entire family, you’re entitled to $250,000, and everyone in the car who passes away is entitled up to $500,000, however, that’s apportioned among the people,” Nicholas said.
Nicholas added, “We’re talking about the complete taking of a life. So what we’re asking ourselves here today is if this mistake of the judicial process” is worth more.
“It’s a tough policy decision for us to say that the taking of a life or the causing of a death is of less value than being wrongfully imprisoned,” he reasoned. “Now, being wrongfully imprisoned is a tragedy. It’s an awful thing to take an innocent person and put them in jail, but it pales by comparison to the complete loss of life.”
Minority Floor Leader Mary Throne (D-Cheyenne) said she agreed that $250,000 under the Governmental Claims Act is too low in the case of loss of life.
“But I submit to you that that is not a policy we should look to for guidance in this instance,” she said. “In a case of actual innocence, it’s not about [the actions] of a truck driver or snowplow driver. It’s a total systemic failure which the public as a whole is responsible for.”
Throne said the breakdown of the judicial system “is much bigger than negligence.”
“It doesn’t happen very often,” she said. “But when it does, we ought to give folks enough of a start to be able to regain their place in society that they shouldn’t have lost in the first place.”
Rep. John Freeman (D-Green River) noted that technology has changed greatly over the years, and can put a person who has been wrongfully locked up at an extreme disadvantage when they are released.
“If we put a person in jail unjustly, when they come out and look at society now, I think their jaw will drop,” Freeman said. “They won’t know where to start. They won’t have any financial resources to go forward.”
He called $500,000 “a reasonable compromise” in the debate over what is a fair amount of compensation.
Rep. Mark Baker (R-Rock Springs) said SF 30 is the product of a lot of work by the interim committee, and noted that such cases of injustice “are few and far between,” and won’t affect Wyoming’s state budget.
The full House defeated Nicholas’ amendment on a voice vote. The third and final reading of the bill is scheduled Wednesday.
As written, the bill would allow for compensation to 63-year-old Andrew Johnson of Cheyenne, who DNA evidence showed last year was wrongfully convicted of the rape of a woman. He spent nearly 24 years in prison before a judge signed an order exonerating him of the crime.
Johnson would have up to two years from the date of the order to file a claim under the bill if it is approved and signed into law by Gov. Matt Mead. He attended a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee last Thursday but did not testify on the bill.
Wyoming would become the 30th state that compensates exonerated people. The amounts vary greatly in other states, ranging from $25,000 plus attorney’s fees in Wisconsin to no caps at all in New York and Texas.
The Legislature debated a similar bill in 2008 but didn’t pass it. The case of Johnson provides a real-life example of the harm the state has done to a man it wrongfully convicted. Throne is right – the breakdown of the justice system in such incidents can’t be compared to negligence that is compensated for under the Governmental Claims Act, even if death is involved.