An innocent Texas man was convicted of rape and robbery and served 30 years in prison before his conviction was overturned. The state paid him $2.4 million in compensation, plus $13,000 per month.
Five years later, this time in Wisconsin, another innocent man was convicted of homicide. He served 23 years in prison before he was exonerated by DNA tests. But a Wisconsin claims board awarded him just $25,000, the maximum allowed under state law.
The compensation gap highlights the disparity between how different states help the wrongfully convicted get a fresh start. Texas, Tennessee and Florida offer million-dollar payouts, while others limit payouts to a mere $25,000 or less. And others offer no compensation at all. Activists who fight for the wrongfully convicted, as well as the innocent people who have received payouts, say it's time for lawmakers across the nation to acknowledge their obligations to innocent convicts by awarding them enough money to help them regain their lost lives.
Robert Lee Stinson was 21 when he was convicted in the 1984 slaying of a Milwaukee woman whose nearly naked body was found bloody and beaten in an alley near her home. He was arrested the next day because police said he couldn't adequately explain his whereabouts at the time of the crime.
At trial, a forensic dentist inexplicably determined that Stinson's bite matched those on the victim. The testimony ignored the fact that Stinson was missing a tooth where the bite marks indicated a tooth should have been, and he had an intact one where the perpetrator didn't.
Stinson served 23 years of a life sentence before his conviction was overturned. He asked the state claims board for $115,000, or $5,000 for every year behind bars. Wisconsin law allows for a maximum of $5,000 per year up to $25,000, although the board can ask the Legislature for more.
The board awarded the full $25,000 and recommended that state lawmakers give him the other $90,000.
"That's not nearly enough to compensate me for spending 23 years in prison," Stinson, 48, said at the time. "But it will really help me purchase a vehicle and pay for tuition."
A Democratic lawmaker proposed a measure last year to give him the extra money, but it went nowhere in the Legislature's budget committee.
Other Wisconsin cases also have raised eyebrows. In one case, another Milwaukee man wrongfully convicted of homicide before being cleared by DNA testing also got $25,000 for his six years in prison.
While $25,000 might not sound like much, 23 states don't even offer that. They have no statutes regarding compensating the wrongly convicted, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In those cases, exonerated people can petition for individual relief, but they shouldn't expect much, said Stephen Saloom, the policy director for the New York-based Innocence Project. Saloom said he would like to see every state match the federal policy: up to $50,000 for each year of incarceration, plus another $50,000 for each year on death row.