House OKs compensation for wrongful convictions

OLYMPIA, Wash. — The state House on Friday approved a measure that allows people who were wrongfully convicted to seek compensation from the state for the years they lost behind bars.

The measure passed on a 95-2 vote Friday night and now heads to the Senate for consideration. If passed, Washington would join 27 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government with similar laws on the books.

Rep. Tina Orwall, a Democrat from Normandy Park who sponsored the bill, said that of all of the measures she has been involved with before, “none have impacted me as much as the bill before you.”

The measure would allow people who were wrongfully convicted to file a claim in superior court for damages against the state. The claimant must show their conviction was reversed or vacated based on significant evidence of innocence, and that they did not commit the crime they were charged with. Once a judge or jury determines the claim is valid, they can award damages.

Currently, the only option someone has is to sue the state, but they are required to sue on some basis other than the fact that they were wrongfully convicted, such as intentional wrongdoing or prosecutorial misconduct.

Under the bill, compensation would be similar to the amounts paid by the federal government — a wrongly convicted person would receive $50,000 for each year of imprisonment, including time spent awaiting trial. An additional $50,000 would be awarded for each year on death row. A person would receive $25,000 for each year on parole, community custody, or as a registered sex offender.

The state also would pay all child support owed while the claimant was in custody, and reimburse all court and attorneys’ fees up to $75,000. In addition, in-state college tuition waivers would be provided for the claimant and the claimant’s children and/or step-children.

Orwall mentioned the case of Alan Northrop, who was convicted of rape in 1993 and was cleared by DNA evidence after serving 17 years in prison. Northrup testified in earlier public hearings that the hardest part of his time behind bars was not being able to watch his children grow up.

“This compensation is a way for us to say we’re sorry,” Orwall said. “It’s a way for them to rebuild their lives.”

A fiscal note attached to the bill indicates the impact on the state can’t be determined at this time due to all the varying factors, such as the number of claims, years on parole and legal costs, in addition to the college costs. An amendment introduced on the House floor seeking to cap the compensation at $300,000 was rejected.

Supporters of state compensation say the cost to the state is a small price to pay to repair a life.

“How much is your life worth?” asked Republican Rep. Matt Shea of Spokane, as he spoke in support of the measure. “How much is the enjoyment of your children, of your wife, of going outdoors, how much is that worth?”

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The wrongful conviction measure is House Bill 1341.

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Online:

Legislature: http://www.leg.wa.gov

The Innocence Project: http://www.innocenceproject.org

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Follow Rachel La Corte at http://www.twitter.com/RachelAPOly or http://www.facebook.com/news.rachel

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