Friday, May 18, 2018

Do right, Ohio, by the wrongfully convicted

The following editorial was published by the Beacon Journal/ on May 16, 2018.

The state can commit few more grievous errors than wrongfully convicting and imprisoning a man or woman. When discovered, such an error requires swift and adequate compensation, a financial package offering some cushion against the blow of altered lives and lost liberty. In 1986, Ohio took the lead among states when the legislature enacted a process for addressing wrongful convictions.

Unfortunately, the process has broken down, especially since an Ohio Supreme Court ruling in 2014. Now the legislature has an opportunity to advance improvements. House Bill 411 cleared committee with strong bipartisan support last month. It deserves a floor vote this week or next, before lawmakers recess.

What has gone wrong? The story goes back to the initial law, the legislature allowing compensation only for those who proved “actual innocence,” an extremely high standard. So, in 2003, lawmakers made a helpful adjustment. They expanded eligibility to cover wrongful convictions due to “errors in procedure,” or constitutional violations.

The change represented an advance, six of the 31 claims since 2003 involving errors in procedure, the rest going to innocence. Then, Mansaray v. State of Ohio landed before the high court, and the justices seized on a substantial legislative drafting error. The court ruled that as written, the law permitted compensation only for errors in procedure after sentencing and during or after imprisonment.

That all but gutted the advance. Most errors in procedure occur before sentencing.

House Bill 411, sponsored by state Reps. Bill Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican, and Emilia Sykes, an Akron Democrat, provides an overdue correction. It serves someone like Dale Johnston, now age 84, wrongfully convicted in 1982 of murdering his daughter and her boyfriend. He spent six years on death row until an appeals court reversed his conviction. Prosecutors withheld evidence about witnesses who had a different version of the killings.

Johnston sought compensation, but the courts found him unable to prove his innocence. Now he faces the obstacle of the procedural error occurring before sentencing, making him ineligible under the high court ruling.

In the meantime, the actual killers have been identified. Johnson has been waiting nearly three decades for the state to right its wrong. The compensation hardly is excessive at $52,000 for each year wrongfully imprisoned. The state has more than a moral obligation. Its actions have wrecked innocent lives, most at financial bottom when released.

House Bill 411 is narrowly constructed. The error in procedure is limited to those instances when prosecutors commit a constitutional violation in withholding evidence that could benefit the defendant. It allows for offsets if a defendant wins an award in a related civil lawsuit. It establishes eligibility if the prosecution doesn’t file new charges within a year.

All of this deserves the support of prosecutors. Unfortunately, they are not there. That shouldn’t slow the House from approval, sending the measure to the Senate, the state needing to do better by those wrongfully convicted.

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