Will Adnan Syed be compensated for his time in prison?
When prosecutors dropped murder charges against Adnan Syed, he had already spent 22 years in prison.
“Today justice is served,” Baltimore City Attorney Marilyn Mosby said in a statement. announcing that Syed had been released.
But for many wrongfully incarcerated, justice isn’t just about getting out of jail. This often means starting a new battle to be compensated for lost time. On average, 2,021 exonerated have spent more than 11 years wrongfully imprisoned, according to the National Exemption Registry.
In most cases, simply being released from prison after a wrongful conviction does not automatically mean that an exonerated will be paid.
Syed, whose story was chronicled and brought to national attention on the “Serial” podcast, was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999. In September, prosecutors said that they no longer had confidence in the case against Syed, and in mid-October he was released after prosecutors said DNA evidence exonerated him in the case.
In a statement to USA TODAY, Syed’s attorneys declined to comment on whether or how he would seek compensation for his time in prison.
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If he demanded to be paid, Syed would be among thousands of people forced to re-prove their innocence if they want to receive compensation for the time they lost in prison.
The path to compensation often depends on state rules. And in some states, being exonerated alone isn’t enough proof — evidence that got a person released might not be enough to secure payment for years lost in prison.
Across the country, people who have been wrongfully convicted regularly seek justice in a variety of ways. Sometimes they receive tens of millions of dollars for their time in prison – and sometimes they receive nothing at all.
After spending a decade in prison for a murder conviction from the age of 15, Davontae Sanford received $7.5 million from the Detroit City Council to settle his allegations that police violated his rights. Meanwhile, in Oregon, Nicholas McGuffin was wrongfully convicted of murdering his high school girlfriend in 2000 and spent nine years in prison until he was cleared by DNA evidence. But he won’t be paid by the state — Oregon is one of 12 states without laws to compensate the exempt.
How exonerated are compensated for wrongful imprisonment
The Exonerated face an uncertain future after being released from prison. For many, compensation can help restore lives that have been destroyed.
“People exonerated are often released with nothing,” said Neel Lalchandani, a Baltimore attorney who works with wrongfully incarcerated clients. “We have had clients who have been discharged without even a bus ticket to a family member’s home. And without identity card, without health insurance.
Nationally, 72% of exempts who file claims with the state receive some form of compensation, according to data from the National Exemption Registry. But the amount varies widely from state to state — while Texas pays $80,000 per year to the exempt, Wisconsin only pays $5,000 per year with a maximum reward of $25,000.
Thirty-eight states, plus Washington, DC, have laws in place to compensate those wrongfully incarcerated.
Exempt may also sue for compensation, usually in federal court, claiming that their constitutional rights have been violated.
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About 43% of people who have been exonerated file civil suits, said Jeffrey Gutman, a law professor at George Washington University. And of those who do file, about 52% receive a civil sentence either by jury verdict or more commonly by settlement, he said.
Exempt persons can also seek compensation through a private bill, although this process is difficult and rare.
Maryland, where Syed’s case is located, calculates compensation by multiplying the number of days the exonerated was jailed after his conviction by Maryland’s median daily household income rate. In Syed’s case, that’s about $2 million.
Under a new 2021 law, the state not only provides monetary compensation, but also health care, housing vouchers and tuition assistance – essential benefits for someone fresh out of school. prison, Lalchandani said.
A judge hearing the case also ruled last month that the state violated its legal duty to share exculpatory evidence with Syed’s defense, a violation that could form the basis of a trial.
Exempt persons face obstacles in seeking compensation
Once the exonerated are released from prison, the path to compensation is to navigate a sometimes confusing and often lengthy hash of state laws, difficult legal battles, and the mental toll of once again proving their innocence.
State laws generally require people seeking compensation to prove their innocence — being released from jail doesn’t automatically mean an exonerated person has the right to pay.
And some state laws have narrow eligibility for compensation. In Missouri, only those who prove their innocence “only” by DNA testing can be compensated, at about $36,000 a year. It is the only law of its kind in the country.
Kevin Strickland has been released in Missouri after spending four decades in prison. But because his innocence was not proven by DNA alone, Missouri owed him no dollars.
“It’s not fair,” Strickland said last year.
Strickland was convicted of murdering three people in 1979 when he was 19 years old. He was released after the recantation of witness statements.
“It’s not just me. Society knows that. I’m just one in a million who knows the law needs to be changed,” he said.
If Strickland had been convicted on the other side of the state in Kansas, he likely would have been awarded $65,000 a year.
Exonerated persons often spend years, even decades, in prison before being released, and this time interval can prove difficult when reconsidering a case.
Witnesses likely to testify may be deceased or essential documents may have been destroyed or may not be retained.
“Sometimes it’s just hard to prove you didn’t do anything, even if it’s 100% the truth,” Lalchandani said. “So I really think the passage of time in these cases presents the practical hurdle to someone proving their innocence.”
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Civil rights lawsuits can take even more resources and time — up to five years, according to Lalchandani. Exemptees must prove they have a high legal standard, and even if they win their case, their payment can be suspended or reversed on appeal.
“There are all kinds of legal hurdles that have been erected to make civil rights lawsuits very difficult and very expensive to pursue,” he said.
And those exonerated who pursue legal action must go through the process of getting judged — again. This process can be mentally taxing, said Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.
“As a wrongfully convicted person, you have to go through a lot of psychological things to deal with one of these lawsuits,” Armbrust said. “You have to assume that whoever is defending the police will say you are guilty. And you have to assume they’re going to find ways to allege that you engaged in some kind of conspiracy to fraudulently prove you’re innocent.
But for some, the long process is paying off: On average, successful federal civil rights cases result in much higher compensation than state law awards — between four and five times higher per year of incarceration. , according to the National Registry of Exemptions.
Last year, a jury in a federal civil rights case in North Carolina awarded $75 million to two mentally handicapped half-brothers who spent decades behind bars after being wrongfully convicted of rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in 1983.
That compensation was nearly five times the total amount of compensation the state of North Carolina has given to the exonerated, according to registry data, and state law has a cap of $750,000 per person.
National trends in exemption
According to data from the National Exoneration Registry, the number of exonerated prisoners has increased rapidly over the past decade. Since 1989, more than 3,000 Americans have been exonerated, and more than half of those exonerations have occurred since 2012.
In recent years, dedicated units — called conviction integrity units — within a prosecutor’s office that review old cases have sprung up across the country. Since 2012, Baltimore has exonerated 15 people through its unit.
And most states with exonerated compensation laws have passed or amended their laws in the past 10 years — laws that tend to have bipartisan support, according to Gutman.
“I think wrongful convictions have come to the public’s attention over the past two decades in a really tangible way,” he said.