Exonerated Prisoners Have Serious Financial Problems

by | January 5, 2015

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske

When DNA evidence exonerated Andrew "A.J." Johnson of rape after 24 years in prison, he got his picture in the paper and his freedom.

What he did not get was help starting over from the state that had imprisoned him.

He emerged from behind bars in 2013 at the age of 64, unemployed and in debt: $4,611.55 in child support had accrued while he was in prison.

"If I die today," Johnson said recently, "I can't afford to be buried."

The number of prisoners exonerated of crimes has increased substantially with the advent of DNA testing and better forensics. But 20 states, including Wyoming, do not pay compensation for the years lost behind bars.

The falsely imprisoned in these cases are forced to file expensive lawsuits or seek special legislation from lawmakers who may be reluctant to pay, especially in cases where someone who spent years in prison for a crime they didn't commit may have been guilty of others.

Johnson had served time on various theft and drug charges before his wrongful rape conviction in 1989. The Wyoming Legislature was left with a vexing question: How much are 24 years of a life like Andrew Johnson's worth?

Their verdict was blunt: Nothing.

"People with prior records are more at risk for a wrongful conviction because they're already in the system, and often that's the first place police will look for a suspect," said Saundra Westervelt, a compensation expert at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

In those cases, fighting for compensation can be a formidable challenge. Many exonerees are poorly trained men working low-level jobs, shadowed by the stigma of being ex-convicts, forced to file their own legal paperwork because they can't afford attorneys or can't find lawyers who will take their long-shot cases. Nearly 60 percent of the 1,500 cases listed in the National Registry of Exonerations are people of color.

But even in states that do pay compensation, a prior criminal record or indications that someone contributed to his conviction, for example, by associating with a gang, can ne an impediment. Florida has a "clean hands" provision disqualifying those with prior felony convictions, and requires prosecutors involved in the cases to sign off on payments.

Former Laramie County District Attorney Scott Homar, who handled Johnson's case on appeal, continued to insist he was guilty, even after DNA cleared him, and noted that Johnson's criminal record had contributed to his life sentence.

In many states, prior crimes are not an impediment to compensation.

Colorado recently paid $1.2 million to an exoneree with a criminal record _ including armed robbery _ under its new compensation law. If Johnson had been convicted there, just eight miles south of here, he would be entitled to about $1.7 million.

Johnson acknowledged his past but said the state owed him just as it would anyone else unjustly imprisoned.

"Once you paid society back," he said, "under the law, you are supposed to be another citizen of this country."

Johnson's attorneys, after launching Johnson's successful appeal, proposed a state law that would compensate exonerees up to $500,000.

Johnson had wanted to sue police and prosecutors, but his lawyers advised that the proposed law was a better bet, even though they would have to lobby a Legislature dominated by tough-on-crime Republicans.

"What is the price of freedom?" his attorney told him. "We'll find out." Johnson knew how precious freedom was even before his wrongful conviction. Tempted by easy money and drugs, he had served more than a decade of hard time, mostly for robbery.

But that did not make him a rapist.

He had grown up poor, a young black man in a state that is about 90 percent white.

His father died when he was 16, and Johnson had to work after school to help support his family. He had always been chatty, nimble, forever tinkering with machines. Inspired by the operatives on the television show "Mission Impossible," he developed a sideline: safe-cracking.

In 1968, the year he graduated from high school, Johnson was caught robbing a grocery store safe. He served more than a year in prison.

After his release he married, settled in Cheyenne, had two daughters and took up roofing. But three more convictions and a divorce followed. By 1987, he was out of prison once more; he found a girlfriend and moved in to help raise her 4-year-old daughter.

He was up for a $2 raise at a new job when he was arrested again on June 10, 1989, and charged with raping a white woman, a friend's fiancee.

On Sept. 27, 1989, an all-white jury deliberated for less than a day before convicting Johnson of aggravated burglary and first-degree sexual assault.

Johnson married his girlfriend while in prison, but they saw little of each other, as he was repeatedly transferred out of state due to overcrowding. By 2006, they had divorced.

Two years later, lawyers at the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Innocence Center responded to Johnson's pleas and successfully lobbied state lawmakers to pass a DNA-testing law. Then they persuaded a judge to order retesting of the rape kit from his case.

When new DNA tests excluded Johnson and matched the victim's fiance, District Attorney Homar requested additional tests. They were inconclusive.

A judge ordered a retrial. In April 2013, Johnson was released on $10,000 bond.

Homar dismissed the new DNA tests, saying Johnson might have used a condom or not ejaculated.

Ultimately, Homar said too many years had passed to pursue a new trial, while also conceding that the accuser had "credibility issues." In July 2013, he asked a judge to dismiss all charges against Johnson due to insufficient evidence.

"This is not an exoneration," he said at the time. But months later, a judge made a finding that Johnson was in fact not guilty.

Johnson's bond money was refunded. He used it to bury his mother.

With little chance of a good job, Johnson's best hope was the proposed compensation law.

The bill introduced in March called for paying exonerees $100 per day in prison, up to $500,000, disbursed in annual increments of $50,000.

But the legislation drew fire almost immediately. Opponents warned that the law could reward criminals freed on technicalities.

A Republican lawmaker declared that compensating Johnson would be a mistake.

"If you ask the prosecutor," Rep. Bob Nicholas said, "he will tell you with hand over his heart this man is not innocent."

The bill was tabled, and later that month, the Legislature adjourned without passing it.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times