HELENA — Montana should offer financial compensation for people who are exonerated of criminal charges after spending years in prison, advocacy groups and exonerees told a legislative committee.
"While there's no way to replace years that wrongfully convicted people lost, the state must at least provide compensation to help them build a future," said Frank Knaak, the executive director of the Montana Innocence Project.
The state Law and Justice Interim Committee heard testimony Monday as part of a study on the issue that could lead to legislation during the 2021 session.
Montana offers educational aid for people who are exonerated as a result of DNA evidence, but no cash payment for the loss of their freedom, potential earnings and career growth.
Michelle Feldman with the New York-based Innocence Project suggested paying exonerees at least $50,000 a year for each year they served in prison and setting reasonable eligibility requirements to apply for compensation.
Currently, exonerees must pursue claims for civil damages, which can take years to litigate and can be costly, Feldman said. Supporters say having a compensation policy would get people the financial aid they need more quickly and save money.
Jimmy Ray Bromgard, who spent 15 years in prison before being exonerated of a 1987 rape charge, received a $3.5 million judgment. Under the proposed policy, he would have received $225,000 upon exoneration and still could have pursued a civil lawsuit. Feldman recommends that civil awards higher than the state payment be used to repay the state for its compensation. Such offset provisions exist in five states, she said.
Richard Raugust, who spent nearly 18 years in prison before being exonerated in a 1997 killing, filed a $97 million claim against the state in July while Freddy Joe Lawrence and Paul Jenkins are seeking unspecified damages after they spent 23 years in prison for a homicide that DNA testing linked to another man.
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Cody Marble filed a lawsuit in January seeking unspecified compensation from Missoula County for mishandling the investigation that led to a rape conviction for which he served 14 years before being exonerated. Marble told lawmakers he was released with no re-entry services, such as help finding a job and housing.
"People who are convicted go through pre-release services and things like that," Marble said. "If it turns out you were innocent, you get kicked out the door with nothing."
Thirty-five states offer some sort of compensation for exonerees, but Montana is the only one that does not provide cash, Knaak said.
Montana exonerees "leave prison with their anger, their bitterness and the shirts on their back," said Jerry Marble, Cody's father.
Jeff Baker, whose 2012 conviction for sexually assaulting his girlfriend's daughter was overturned and charges later dismissed, testified the state can't put a price on the loss of a person's job, home, reputation and time with family. He said he was twice assaulted in prison and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.
He lives with his 77-year-old mother, who is his sole support, he said. "If there's no reasonable compensation bill, how will I survive when she's gone? What will my options be?" Baker asked.
The committee will meet next in November.