Where a person decides to live can make a huge difference in his or her life. There are many advantages to living in Wyoming, but the fairness of its criminal justice system isn’t one of them.
This is a story about two men who have lived similar lives filled with lost years who now face very different futures, all because of where they put down roots and the actions of their respective state lawmakers.
Andrew Johnson of Cheyenne was wrongfully convicted of a 1989 rape and aggravated burglary and served 23 years in prison before finally being exonerated by DNA evidence. He was released in 2013.
DNA testing also resulted in the 2009 release of Kevin Ireland of Wallingford, Conn., who was wrongfully imprisoned for 21 years for the rape and murder of a 30-year-old mother of four.
Both men won their freedom, but struggled after being let out of prison. Neither had any money or many job opportunities after being locked up for so long.
In 2014, Johnson watched as the Wyoming Legislature considered a bill that would compensate him for his lost years. The House and Senate both passed a measure that would pay him and anyone else exonerated due to DNA evidence up to $500,000 to start a new life. But because the two bills had been amended, the chambers needed to concur on a final piece of legislation. They tried up to the final hours of the session, but couldn’t work out their differences.
The House insisted it wasn’t enough to be officially exonerated by a court because of DNA evidence — a person wrongfully convicted still had to both win a retrial and submit to a judicial review of evidence to receive any money. The Senate rightfully balked at the House’s changes, which treated innocent people as guilty and forced them to spend money they didn’t have on more legal procedures to further prove they didn’t commit the crime. So they went home, as did Johnson, without any resolution to his financial woes.
A similar bill was drafted in 2015 by freshman Rep. Charles Pelkey (D-Laramie), who kept the compensation at $100 per day up to a maximum of $500,000. But the measure obviously lacked enough support to get through the House, so Pelkey withdrew it and now hopes to work on the issue during the interim.
Ideally, Pelkey would like to include a provision that will also provide compensation to inmates cleared by non-DNA evidence. The hope is the Legislature will accept a bill that provides a more comprehensive answer to the problem of helping inmates wrongly convicted by the state get on their feet financially after years — sometimes decades — in prison.
But the 64-year-old Johnson will have to wait until next February’s budget session — which requires a two-thirds vote for a bill just to be introduced — to see if the third time is the charm for him.
On Jan. 30, a few days before the Wyoming bill was withdrawn, Ireland was having much better luck in Connecticut. J. Paul Vance Jr., that state’s claims commissioner, made the 44-year-old Ireland the first recipient of a state law to compensate the wrongly incarcerated since Connecticut legislators passed its law in 2008. Ireland was awarded $6 million.
In his report, Vance wrote that “no words or dollar amount will suffice to give [Ireland] back the time that he lost and the misery that he endured.” The commissioner said the former inmate was labeled a murderer and sex offender “forced to spend a long portion of his life in maximum security prisons, where he experienced 21 years of violence, sleepless nights and the constant fear and hopelessness that he would die in prison as an innocent man.”
In addition to the $6 million, the state of Connecticut also gave him a job that he has a special reason to do to the best of his abilities, given his life’s story. Last October, Ireland was appointed by Gov. Dannel Malloy to the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, where his annual salary will be $92,500. The Connecticut Legislature’s judiciary committee has already approved the nomination.
The governor called Ireland “a man of extraordinary character who endured the unimaginable pain of two decades of wrongful incarceration, and yet is not only without bitterness, but is incredibly thoughtful, insightful and committed to public safety and service.”
Johnson, of course, also endured much pain during the 23 years the state of Wyoming took away from him. He is not bitter, even to the woman who wrongly accused him of sexual assault. But after leaving the Wyoming State Penitentiary a few days before his mother died, Johnson had no work prospects and owed more than $4,000 in back child custody payments.
Relatives took him in, and people who heard about his story donated a car to Johnson. But the vehicle soon had all of its tires slashed by vandals, forcing Johnson to spend all of the money he had in savings to replace them.
No Connecticut type of windfall will ever be awarded to Johnson. He will be extremely fortunate if his supporters help push through a bill that would give him $500,000, doled out $50,000 annually for a decade. Even if the bill passes next year, Johnson would be 75 by the time he received all of the money.
Connecticut isn’t the only state to recognize that innocent people harmed by the state deserve compensation. Wyoming is one of only 20 states that don’t have such a law on the books.
Last month, a District of Columbia judge awarded $9.2 million to Kirk Odom, who was wrongfully imprisoned for 22 years for the 1981 rape and robbery of a woman. Part of the high award was likely due to the fact that Odom contracted the HIV virus after being raped while in custody.
All things considered, the $500,000 maximum award being sought in Wyoming to help Johnson and other exonerated prisoners isn’t much compensation for having the majority of one’s adult life improperly taken away — especially if it’s compared to what many other states have paid to the innocent.
The 2014 Wyoming bill bogged down for the same reason many bills die in this state’s Legislature — members don’t want to see the state do anything to help anyone in poverty, even if the reason they are impoverished is directly the fault of the state, as it is in Johnson’s case. Wyoming is such a “law and order” state that its officials can’t bear to see anyone accused of a crime be awarded even a dime by the state, even after they’ve conclusively been proven innocent and released!
Wyoming can’t ever repay Johnson anywhere near the amount he was actually harmed by a criminal justice system that rapidly convicted him despite scant and contradictory evidence during his trial. But it is certainly within the state’s power to apologize for its judicial mistakes and give the wrongly convicted a chance to at least live comfortably and at peace for the remainder of his or her life.
Thirty other states recognize this attempt to compensate people for tragic mistakes is the least they can do. Wyoming lawmakers are used to doing the least they can for the poor in many instances, including health care and basic survival. For once, can we at least do the right thing for the right reason?
— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at [email protected]