Louisiana paying wrongfully convicted, but is it enough?

Louisiana owes John Thompson 18 years of his life back — a debt it could not repay even in the best of financial times.

From the day he walked out of prison on May 9, 2003, exonerated of a 1985 murder, until the dawn of a new decade, Thompson didn’t receive a dime from the state that had come within weeks of executing him.

“It was like hell. It was worse than hell,” said Thompson, now 50, of the 14 years he spent on Death Row. “If that is not cruel and unusual punishment, not only to you but to your whole family, then I don’t know what is.”

For the wrongfully convicted, the road to compensation has been a long and frustrating journey, determined in many cases by geography and the arbitrary values assigned to the nightmare of serving undeserved prison time.

But Louisiana’s exonerees have notched incremental victories in Baton Rouge in recent years, securing payments that are often long overdue.

While nearly two dozen states don’t compensate exonerees at all, Louisiana has a statute that entitles people like Thompson to $25,000 per year of wrongful incarceration — capped at $250,000 — plus up to $80,000 for “loss of life opportunities.”

At least two dozen of the state’s approximately 40 exonerees have been awarded some payment, while several others have cases pending, according to interviews and data provided by the state Treasury Department.

But several wrongfully convicted men said the compensation they receive can’t begin to atone for the miscarriage of justice that stripped them of the opportunity to pursue a career and raise a family.

Critics contend Louisiana’s law unfairly shortchanges people like Rickie Johnson, a man who spent more than two decades in prison for a rape he didn’t commit.

Under the statute, he is only entitled to be compensated for 10 of those years. Exonerees may also sue for damages, but such cases have proven difficult to win.

“I don’t think exonerees like myself that spent a quarter century in prison for a crime they didn’t commit should be scuffling as hard as we’re scuffling,” said Johnson, who learned leather work at Angola and opened a shop in Leesville after winning his freedom. “I’ve been out since 2008, and I still can’t afford to buy my home as every grown-up should have at my age.”

Advocates vow to further their efforts to increase compensation for the wrongfully convicted, the state’s perennial financial woes notwithstanding. Rep. Herbert B. Dixon, D-Alexandria, said he intends to re-introduce a bill next legislative session that would double the current compensation rate, bringing the state in line with neighboring Mississippi.

Other states — such as Texas, which pays $80,000 per year of wrongful incarceration with no cap — offer a far more generous penance.

Dixon said he’d like to see a court cost dedicated to fund Louisiana’s Innocence Compensation Fund, though he doesn’t expect much of an appetite among his colleagues.

“I think they ought to, at the very least, get a set amount of money for every year that they were incarcerated,” Dixon said. “That’s the least this state ought to be able to do, and it should be far more than $25,000 a year.”

Such proposals are likely to be a hard sell due to the state’s economic climate, said Michael Leo Owens, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta who has written about the politics of compensating the wrongfully convicted.

“People are going to come forward and say, ‘Why do they need more?’ — especially in the context of economic insecurity among states,” Owens predicted.

Still, Owens said, Louisiana should applaud itself for at least having a compensation statute, noting there are 21 states — including Georgia and Arkansas — that do not. “In that way,” he added, “Louisiana is arguably one of the leaders in the U.S.”

Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan and editor of the National Registry of Exonerations, described the varying compensation statutes around the country as a patchwork that includes some bizarre limitation schemes.

“Quite a few states, including Louisiana, have increased the amount of money that can be paid to people who have been wrongly incarcerated,” Gross said. “But it’s far from what it should be.”

Louisiana passed its compensation statute in 2005 and awarded its first judgment the next year. The law requires exonerees to prove their “factual innocence” and receive a judgment from state district court in order to be paid.

The first $150,000 payment went to Gene C. Bibbins, a Baton Rouge man who logged 17 years in Angola for an aggravated rape he didn’t commit. Bibbins was awarded additional compensation after the cap increased. Since his exoneration, however, he has been convicted as an habitual offender and is serving state prison time again, with a projected release date in April.

An effort to raise the exoneree compensation cap to $500,000 failed in the legislature last year, but lawmakers did approve a measure that shifted the administration of the Innocence Compensation Fund to the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement.

The move was designed to streamline disbursements for exonerees, who for the first time did not have to have a personal bill passed this year appropriating their compensation checks, said Barbara G. Baier, a Treasury Department attorney.

The state had initially paid exonerees in lump sums but began paying yearly installments of $25,000 after increasing the maximum compensation from $150,000 to $250,000 in 2011.

“It’s always a toss-up whether any of this will be funded,” Baier said.

State figures show the number of wrongfully convicted receiving checks has increased in recent years. Nearly $3 million was awarded and about $1.5 million distributed in 2012 for wrongful convictions, according to a recent Louisiana Supreme Court report.

The awards marked an increase over the previous year, attributable in part to several compensated exonerees receiving supplemental funding after the cap was raised, said Kristin Wenstrom, an attorney with Innocence Project New Orleans.

Lawmakers appropriated $530,000 to the Innocent Compensation Fund this fiscal year, according to budget numbers, and an additional $250,000 for the wrongful conviction of Eddie Triplett in Orleans Parish.

Wenstrom said she was expecting compensation to be allocated for 22 exonerees this past session, but state officials said the official count was not available last week. At least five exonerees have cases pending in court, Wenstrom said.

Advocates have also faulted Louisiana’s statute for not including money for attorneys’ fees. Before Innocence Project New Orleans had the resources to take on these cases, some exonerees ended up with attorneys who took “20, 30 or 40 percent of their compensation” as a fee, Wenstrom said.

Other attorneys, however, including Philip G. Hunter of Alexandria, have handled the cases pro bono. “I felt terrible about these guys,” Hunter said. “What I have pledged is to try every time we can to get the amount (of compensation) increased.”

Thompson, the former Death Row inmate, said he dished out $50,000 — a third of his initial compensation — in attorney fees while fighting a three-year legal battle. It finally ended in 2011 when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the decision in a civil suit that would have awarded Thompson $14 million, or $1 million for every year he had spent on Death Row.

“I’m in so much medical debt it’s a crying shame,” Thompson said. “I’m without insurance. No life insurance, no health insurance.”

Also receiving compensation from the state is Earl Truvia, who spent more than 27 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit in New Orleans’ Calliope Projects. Before going to prison, he dreamed of becoming a fireman and perhaps going to college.

Instead, he’s living paycheck to paycheck with a financial future about as stable as a three-legged table.

“No money can replace the horror and tragedy I experienced while I was incarcerated,” Truvia said. “But they should be paying me retirement for the rest of my life. That’s something they took from me.”

Michael Anthony Williams, of Baton Rouge, experienced a similar loss. He said he’s had trouble covering his medical expenses even with compensation checks, a hardship faced by other exonerees as well.

Then there’s the indelible memory of his time in Angola, a place Williams remembers as “pure hell.”

“You can’t live like a human being in there,” said Williams, who was exonerated of rape in 2005. “You have to live basically like an animal because that’s all you’re surrounded by — a bunch of inmates that act like animals.”