Wrongfully Convicted Inmates Struggle to Get State Compensation

by | December 24, 2014

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske

After Ricardo Aguilera took a bullet to the back of his head in a drive-by shooting, he recovered enough to tell police he had seen the gunman: a light-skinned Latino with a goatee, riding in a Dodge Ram pickup with a guy from the Ford Maravilla gang. The police put together a photo lineup, and Aguilera pointed to a young man with a shaved head and facial hair. It was him, he said.

Deputies showed up at Rafael Madrigal's door in Mira Loma, about 45 miles from the crime scene in East Los Angeles. Madrigal, who had never been in a gang, who hadn't even lived in East L.A. for five years, was incredulous.

The photo in the lineup was at least eight years old, he said _ snapped by a gang task force when he was a teenager. He had a house, a good job, two kids he coached in soccer. A time card indicated he'd been at work the day of the shooting in 2000, but the date stamp on the machine was broken, and the supervisor had written in the date by hand.

Investigators didn't believe him, and neither did a jury.

Madrigal was sentenced to 53 years to life for attempted murder. It took three years before he found an attorney willing to appeal, three more years before they could convince a judge that Madrigal's original attorney defended him ineffectively.

Madrigal walked out of Chino State Prison on Oct. 6, 2009, with the clothes on his back and $187. He was free to return to the life he'd left behind nine years earlier.

Except it didn't exist.

Under a state law intended to compensate those wrongfully imprisoned for crimes they didn't commit, Madrigal appeared to qualify for $281,700 from the state of California.

In the five years since his release, he has argued his case before a state hearing officer and a state compensation board. But though a federal judge found "compelling evidence" that he was "actually innocent," Madrigal has been paid nothing.

The Los Angeles Times has documented dozens of cases nationwide in which people convicted and later cleared by DNA or new evidence never received state compensation. Some _ especially the low-income minorities who make up a large share of the wrongfully imprisoned _ never file a claim because they can't afford a lawyer or find one willing to take the case.

"They just opened the door and said, 'Hey, walk away!'" said Madrigal, 39. "I didn't have much when I went in. But I had what I had, and that little bit that I did have was all taken from me."

His house was gone, sold by his wife to avoid foreclosure. The daughter born shortly after he was imprisoned barely knew who he was. He got a job, but was soon fired when his employer learned he had spent time behind bars.

The number of people exonerated each year in the United States has nearly tripled over the last two decades, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, an academic database that tracks those declared innocent, pardoned, acquitted at retrial or released by a judge based on new evidence.

A total of 1,493 wrongfully convicted inmates have been set free since the first DNA tests in 1989. Hundreds of them have been ushered out of prison with no compensation, even in the states _ a total of 30, plus the District of Columbia _ that have passed laws providing for the payments. In fact, of those cleared by DNA evidence, only 57 percent received state compensation, according to the New York-based nonprofit Innocence Project.

"If someone gets paroled, they get ... food vouchers, clothing vouchers, benefits, even places to live. But for someone who gets exonerated, they just throw you on the street and don't even give you an apology," said Dwayne Provience, 41, who spent nearly a decade in prison before his murder conviction in Detroit was overturned in 2010. The city rejected his bid for compensation and then declared bankruptcy; Provience now works two jobs to support his four children.

Last year, Andrew "A.J." Johnson, 65, was declared innocent of rape as a result of DNA evidence after serving 24 years in a Wyoming prison. That state offers no compensation, however, and today Johnson is nearly broke.

"A wrong was done, and they should at least help me get my life back together," Johnson said.

A decade ago, President George W. Bush signed the Innocence Protection Act, which guarantees those exonerated of federal crimes $50,000 for every year they spent in prison, $100,000 for each year on death row.

Only a handful of states meet or exceed that federal standard. Compensation payments range from $5,000 a year in prison in Wisconsin to $80,000 a year in Texas.

Those who resort to pleading their cases in legislatures and civil courts face stiff odds. In civil court, they must prove that police and prosecutors _ generally protected by immunity laws _ committed flagrant, intentional misconduct.

Exonerees and their advocates have lobbied to pass compensation bills in numerous states, but in recent years such efforts have failed in Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Michigan, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

In Washington state, though, one passed last year, with support from an unusual source: Seattle's top prosecutor, a Republican.

"Money is the mechanism by which we apologize and express regrets in our legal system," King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg told lawmakers. Satterberg had just dropped all charges against Brandon Redtailhawk Olebar, 31, a member of the Lummi tribe mistakenly prosecuted by his office for robbery a decade earlier.

The bill passed. Olebar received $496,712 _ and, to his surprise, an apology and a hug from Satterberg.

(Los Angeles Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.)

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