This editorial was published by the Salt Lake City (Utah) Tribune on December 3, 2007.
"Innocence is the weakest defense. Innocence has a single voice that can only say over and over again, 'I didn't do it.' Guilt has a thousand voices, all of them lies." - LEONARD F. PELTIER, Prison Writings
The Greek philosopher Diogenes spent his days walking the streets of Athens with a lighted lantern, looking for an honest man. As the story goes, he never found one.
The lawyers at the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center are hoping they have better luck as they look for innocent men and women among prison inmates in three states. They won the release in 2004 of a man who had spent 19 years in prison for a Salt Lake City murder, but whose conviction was put in doubt by DNA testing. Three other cases are being reviewed. Nationwide, 208 inmates have been exonerated by DNA testing, and in 77 of those cases, the real perpetrator was found.
Along with its commendable work in exonerating innocent prisoners, the Rocky Mountain center is promoting legislation in Utah that would make restitution to innocent people who have had their lives derailed by wrongful convictions. It also would outline a way that inmates can be found innocent based on evidence other than DNA.
The legislation would provide an exonerated person $40,000 for each year spent in prison, and an additional $30,000 a year for death-row inmates, if they agreed this would be the "exclusive remedy." That means they would give up their right to sue the state for damages. Other compensation would be allowed in "exceptional circumstances"; for example, if an inmate were injured while in prison.
The Legislature should consider this proposal, which is supported by the Utah Attorney General's Office.
First, of course, is the moral imperative: In cases of wrongful conviction, the state may have taken years of a person's life, ruined a reputation and inflicted pain and suffering on friends and family members, all because of a miscarriage of justice. The state should do what it can to make it right.
In addition, the state would be wise to offer immediate cash compensation to avoid the possibility of having to pay a huge award if an exonerated person sued for damages. Nationwide, such awards have ranged from $300,000 to more than $10 million.
If convicted criminals owe a debt to society, does society owe a debt to the wrongly convicted?
We believe it does, and this legislation may be the answer.