Wednesday, September 9, 2009
We Owe it to Ourselves to Get This Right
Some special friends of Central Dallas Ministries found some very good news. A group of men, convicted of crimes they didn't commit, will begin the process of receiving increased compensation this month. How much will the get?
"The former prisoners will get $80,000 for each year they spent behind bars. The compensation also includes lifetime annuity payments that for most of the wrongly convicted are worth between $40,000 and $50,000 a year – making it by far the nation's most generous package."
""I'm nervous and excited," said McGowan, 50. "It's something I never had, this amount of money. I didn't have any money – period."" c
Along with the annuity payments, McGown will receive a lump sum payment of $1.8 million.
Others exonerees could receive as much as $2.2 million in up front payments.
"His payday for his imprisonment – a time he described as "a nightmare," "hell" and "slavery" – should come by mid-November after the state's 45-day processing period."
"The annuity payments are especially popular among those who spent years in prison because they lack experience in managing personal finances. A social worker will set them up with financial advisers and has led discussions alerting them to swindlers."
"The annuities are "a way to guarantee these guys ... payments for life as long as they follow the law," said Kevin Glasheen, a Lubbock attorney representing a dozen former prisoners."
Finally, these men, whose release came with virtually no immediate compensation and no support services will finally be getting the financial help and support they need. If you question whether or not such compensation is deserved, remember that these men were imprisoned, in some cases for almost 30 years; the most productive years of their lives were spent behind bars, locked away for crimes of which they were not guilty. It ought to be expensive to correct such an expensive mistake.
It is true, no amount of money can pay for their freedom, but that should be no excuse for not doing all we can to make up for the compounded injustice of wrongful conviction and the virtual abandonment these men have experienced.
On the flip side, there are some mistakes in this regard for which there are no opportunities for correction - at least for the victim. Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004, for the arson murder of his children. He apparently was not guilty. He may not have been voted 'Husband of the Year' nor would he have won a citizenship award, but, as far as I know, those are not executable offenses.
And the response of those who can make right decisions in these cases or prevent the wrong ones from being made is not encouraging at all.
"In a 2005 Supreme Court case that actually had nothing to do with the execution of innocents, Justices David Souter and Antonin Scalia locked horns over the possibility that such a creature could even exist. Souter fretted that "the period starting in 1989 has seen repeated exonerations of convicts under death sentences, in numbers never imagined before the development of DNA tests." To which Scalia retorted: "[T]he dissent makes much of the new-found capacity of DNA testing to establish innocence. But in every case of an executed defendant of which I am aware, that technology has confirmed guilt." Scalia went on to blast "sanctimonious" death-penalty opponents, a 1987 study on innocent exonerations whose "obsolescence began at the moment of publication," and then concluded that there was not "a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit.""
"This language suggested that if anyone ever found such a case, the Scalias of the world might rethink matters. As of today, the Innocence Project, a national organization dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted through DNA testing, claims there have been 241 post-conviction DNA exonerations, of which 17 were former death-row inmates who now have been spared the death penalty. The gap between their data and Justice Scalia's widens every year. And for those who insist that not even one of those alleged innocents is indeed innocent, we now have a name: Cameron Todd Willingham, executed by the state of Texas in 2004 for allegedly setting a 1991 house fire that killed his three young daughters."
"David Grann, who wrote a remarkable piece about the case in last week's New Yorker, sifted through the evidence against Willingham to reveal that the entire prosecution was a train wreck of eyewitness testimony that changed over time: a jailhouse snitch who was both mentally impaired and stood to benefit from testifying against Willingham, "expert" psychiatrists who never examined the accused but proclaimed him a "sociopath" based on his posters and tattoos, and local arson investigators whose conclusions were less rooted in science than a sort of spiritual performance art. And at every step in his appeals process, Willingham's repeated claims of innocence were met with the response that he'd already had more than enough due process for a baby-killer."
I believe we need to really examine what we are doing in our criminal justice system. Again, there are obviously guilty people who are in prison. But there are apparently more innocent people that we know about - even on death row.
More than 200 people exonerated across the country; 40 of them in Texas; 20 in Dallas County; most minority, most poor, most of whom unable to afford to be able to mount an effective defense; maybe 17 wrongfully executed, one about whom we are sure.
This is beginning to go beyond what we 'owe' these people. Its beginning to be about what we owe ourselves.