Bipartisan effort to reform Georgia’s wrongful conviction compensation process advances

Scales of Justice with the word justice over it.

by Clay Voytek, Georgia Recorder [first published in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]

March 11, 2022

Two decades ago, Kerry Robinson was convicted for a 1993 rape in Moultrie after he was falsely implicated by one of the actual perpetrators and a state forensic analyst. Robinson, 46, spent nearly the next 18 years of his life in a Georgia prison until he was exonerated with DNA evidence in 2020.

Robinson is one of three Georgians currently seeking restitution for a wrongful conviction through an ad hoc legislative process that critics have long described as inefficient and inconsistent.

A bipartisan bill in the Georgia House of Representatives aims to create a wrongful conviction compensation statute and establish a formal process. The bill advanced through the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee earlier this week and is poised for a floor vote before Crossover Day Tuesday, the final day of the General Assembly’s session for new legislation to move forward without extra legislative maneuvering.

“The idea behind House Bill 1354 is to set into law policy, procedures and standards for compensating those who are wrongfully convicted,” said Atlanta Democratic state Rep. Scott Holcomb, a former prosecutor who is sponsoring the bill.

State Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Dacula Republican and chair of the House Judiciary Committee, is co-sponsoring the legislation with Holcomb and two other representatives.

“(The bill) provides a clearer process for claimants seeking compensation and additionally will streamline the process for legislative review,” said Efstration.

If the bill passes the House before Tuesday, it will move to the Senate for consideration.

Georgia is one of 12 states that does not have a law in place to compensate the wrongfully convicted, according to the Georgia Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that helped draft the policy.

“This is an issue that everybody should be able to support,” said Clare Gilbert, the organization’s executive director. “Granting justice to people who’ve had this terrible thing happen to them and restoring some dignity and ability to rebuild their lives, even though no amount of money can ever make up for what they’ve been through.”

Georgia’s compensation process long a problem

Compensation for exonerees has been flagged as a problem in previous legislative sessions without successful reforms. Since 1991, Georgia has paid $7.9 million to 10 wrongfully convicted individuals, according to data from the Georgia Innocence Project.

“The number of wrongful convictions in a state has also made a difference, where you’re able to say, ‘Look, there is a problem here, a relatively large problem.’ And in the state of Georgia, we just haven’t been able to get to scale like that,” said Michael Owens, a political scientist at Emory University who co-authored a 2012 Albany Law Review article on the issue.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 47 Georgians have been exonerated after wrongful convictions since 1989. Texas, which has a statutory compensation system in place, saw 395 exonerations in the same period.

Exonerees must now find a state representative who is willing to sponsor an individual compensation resolution and file a claim with the state’s Claims Advisory Board. The board is made up of members from various state agencies and can only recommend compensation when a state agency is at fault.

“In the vast majority of wrongful conviction cases that just doesn’t fit,” said Hayden Davis, the Georgia Innocence Project’s policy specialist. “Even though the board’s recommendation is non-binding, you need a recommendation of some sort from them in order to move to the next step. In a way, that’s the easy part.”

After a likely rejection from the board, an exoneree’s individual resolution must pass through the normal legislative process. An ad hoc committee approved this year’s three individual resolutions last week, but the resolutions are still working their way through the House alongside HB 1354.

“This whole idea that the wrongfully convicted person has to seek the grace of some legislator, to me, I just think is one of the most ghoulish things, among the most ghoulish things I can imagine with regards to how we treat the wrongfully convicted,” said Owens. “I would want to see clearer statements that the state is doing away with, is abolishing, any hint of compensation by grace through the legislature.”

Bipartisan bill proposes guidelines

The proposed legislation would establish a Wrongful Compensation Review Panel to serve under the Claims Advisory Board. The panel would be composed of political appointees: a state judge who oversees felony criminal cases; a current district attorney; a criminal defense attorney; and two other experts, either attorneys, forensic science experts or law professors.

The review panel would then recommend a compensation amount to the chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, who would be able to include it in the judiciary budget request to lawmakers. The legislation notes “the panel shall strive for consistency between claimants.”

“My primary focus is on creating a system that is orderly, that provides certainty and fairness to everyone who finds themselves similarly situated,” said Columbus Democratic state Rep. Carolyn Hugley, a co-sponsor who has worked extensively to change the compensation system.

The bill allows for compensation recommendations ranging from $50,000 to $100,000 per year of wrongful incarceration. In the bill’s current form, the compensation pay structure is mixed. Up to 25% could be paid out in cash, and the rest would take the form of an annuity with guidance based on the claimant’s age. The proposed legislation would also require that exonerees seeking compensation prove their innocence before the panel with a preponderance of evidence.

“Would you take $50,000 a year to be wrongfully imprisoned?” said Molly Parmer, Robinson’s attorney and a member of the Georgia Innocence Project’s board of directors. “I think that compensation is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the suffering and just the loss of liberty, and his mother, and jobs, and paying into Social Security and so many things.”

Robinson has a strong support network through his family, and he was eager to get a driver’s license and employment upon his release, according to Parmer. Both Parmer and Holcomb, who is sponsoring Robinson’s individual resolution, stressed Robinson’s pleasant disposition and lack of resentment.

In what could be one of the final individual compensation resolutions in the state Legislature, Robinson is seeking a lump sum of $551,000 for his time behind bars.

“We have to remember that that is a human being who received extraordinary punishment and the deprivation of their freedom and liberty, and the state is responsible for that,” said Holcomb. “And so we have to do something for that person who is now back among us.”

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