Over the last few weeks Megan Cassidy at the Casper Star Tribune has done an excellent job reporting the story of Andrew Johnson, who was recently released after serving 24 years in prison for a rape he did not commit.
Following a law passed in 2008, convicts may petition for a new trial in cases where DNA is material evidence (that is, in this case, evidence that bears on the identity of the perpetrator) and is still in existence. Johnson was exonerated thanks to DNA testing he sought under this law. It’s great that technology has advanced to the point where we can be more certain of guilt and innocence in criminal courts, but nevertheless chilling that with every other so-called safeguard in our justice system an innocent man was behind bars for 24 years.
Yesterday’s story in the CS-T illustrates what Johnson’s life is like now that he’s free, and it’s a must-read. In short, Johnson is broke, and fortunately has a great deal of support from his family. The story discusses whether Wyoming will pass a law allowing for compensation for wrongly convicted individuals. Upon reading this story, my initial reaction is that the only question should be how much is offered, not whether or not it’s offered in the first place.
Of course, that’s not the whole story. The state was not the only party who put Andrew Johnson in prison. The evidence now strongly indicates malevolence—or at least gross negligence—by Johnson’s accuser. Despite their lackluster deliberation (to say the least), Johnson was tried in front of a jury of his peers. There is no evidence (so far as I have heard) that state actors—police, prosecutors or judges—acted to railroad Johnson; DNA testing was not available in the late 1980s and was not widely used until around the turn of the century. When government agents are deliberately abusive or grossly negligent in handling suspects, there are already many legal remedies. For example, a man who nearly died in Drug Enforcement Agency custody after being forgotten in a cell for four days recently settled with the federal government for $4.1 million.
But in this case the system failed Andrew Johnson. This distinction brings no comfort, but it makes a serious difference.
The Joint Judiciary Committee of the Wyoming Legislature is currently considering a bill for the 2014 Budget Session, “Compensation for Persons Exonerated Based on DNA Evidence.” The bill allows for compensation of $75 per day, up to $300,000. In Johnson’s case, since he easily meets the statutory cap, the money would be paid out at $30,000 a year for 10 years. This will not make Johnson whole, will not restore 24 years of his life, and is largely symbolic. But, where there’s no malfeasance by the government, that’s exactly what such a law should be.
There are other avenues to consider along with this bill. Interestingly, Wyoming does not have a criminal statute of limitations, and thus Johnson’s accuser could be charged with perjury if the evidence warrants it (according to the news stories her testimony was central to the case against Johnson). Assuming Johnson can claim that her testimony against him is tolled (that is, the wrong against him didn’t actually occur until the state acknowledged his innocence), he may have civil remedies as well. I’m willing to bet there’s not much money Johnson can receive from the truly guilty parties in his case, but that does not obligate the state to step into the place of them.
I hope the proposed Judiciary bill is introduced and discussed this winter, and look forward to hearing more perspectives on how Wyoming can mitigate the worst failures of our justice system.