Thursday, July 09, 2009

Guest Shot: Again, man wrongfully imprisoned faces undeserved trouble

The following editorial was published in The Virginian-Pilot on July 8, 2009.

Arthur Whitfield, 55, has spent half his life trying to undo the damage from wrongful convictions for two rapes in 1981. The documented miscarriages of justice include nearly 22 years in prison before DNA test results set him free, a subsequent pardon that took more than four years, and now, absurd legal technicalities that prevent him from getting a paltry $15,000 from the state for the decades he wrongly spent in prison.

Despite all this, Whitfield remains remarkably free of anger and bitterness. He told The Pilot's Michelle Washington, "I understand that life isn't easy, but I thought it would be a little bit better than what it is."

It should be. Whitfield was 27 when he was sent to prison for 63 years for two rapes in Norfolk's Ghent neighborhood, largely on the basis of an identification by a victim. That was before DNA tests were commonplace, before evidence from a crime scene could provide an irrefutable link to a defendant or eliminate him as a suspect.

While in prison - two decades away from his family, away from any chance of earning a wage or putting money away for retirement - Whitfield earned his general equivalency diploma. He took classes in commercial cleaning and brick masonry.

In 2003, when DNA tests on old evidence began clearing a few defendants across Virginia, Whitfield asked the state to see whether the tests could be done in his case.

Two state officials helped Whitfield's case immeasurably. Mary Jane Burton, a state forensic lab analyst who has since died, preserved biological evidence, including Whitfield's, at a time when it was not required. And Norfolk Commonwealth's Attorney Jack Doyle pursued Whitfield's freedom as soon as the DNA tests in 2004 showed he was innocent.

Doyle, now a judge, petitioned the state parole board for Whitfield's immediate release. In April, three months ago, Gov. Tim Kaine pardoned Whitfield. The pardon erases his conviction, removes his name from the state's sex offender registry and takes him off probation.

But it doesn't result in compensation for the time Whitfield spent behind bars, even though his circumstances are exactly the kind the legislature envisioned addressing. Whitfield's lawyer applied for a $15,000 transition grant to help his client until the legislature can study his case and determine how much compensation Whitfield is owed.

Absurdly, the law says such grants can be given only to people still in prison, a condition that essentially requires Virginia to keep innocent people behind bars.

Whitfield now has a job but no car. The gas and water in his apartment have been turned off because he couldn't pay the bills.

He has suffered enough. More than enough.

This latest situation begs for a lawmaker to navigate the system on Whitfield's behalf and get him the help he needs. Sen. Ken Stolle says he will check into Whitfield's case. So should the rest of the General Assembly. Arthur Whitfield deserves help, not further delay in putting back together a life that the state helped take apart.

No comments: