An Ohio man who was freed last year after spending 39 years in jail for a murder he did not commit will receive over $1 million from the state, in a case that highlights the unequal way states compensate individuals who were wrongfully imprisoned.
Ricky Jackson, 58, is the longest-held U.S. prisoner to be cleared of a crime. He said he learned of the payment from a journalist.
“Wow, wow, wow, that’s fantastic, man,” Jackson told the reporter. “I don’t even know what to say. This is going to mean so much.”
Jackson was convicted along with two others, Wiley Bridgeman and Brigeman's brother Kwame Ajamu, for the 1975 murder of Harold Franks, a Cleveland salesman. The three were found guilty after a 12-year-old boy testified that he saw them carry out the attack.
Years later, the boy, Eddie Vernon, recanted his testimony. There was no other evidence linking Jackson to the murder. Charges against Bridgeman and Ajamu were also dropped last year. It is unclear if the two men have filed for compensation for their wrongful imprisonment, local media reported.
The $1,008,055 in compensation ordered to be paid to Jackson is only about half of the total amount he is entitled to under Ohio state law, and he could receive more if he appears for additional hearings, according to Michael Hill, a trial attorney with Spangenberg Shibley & Liber, an Ohio law firm.
Ohio, along with 29 states and the District of Columbia, has a statute stipulating a fixed amount of compensation per year of imprisonment per person it will pay to prisoners who were wrongfully imprisoned, according to the Innocence Project, a non-profit prisoner advocacy organization.
In Ohio, that amount is $40,330 per year, subject to adjustment by the state auditor.
“The annual adjusted amount determined by the auditor currently, and as applied to Jackson, is $51,901.58,” Hill said. "It was determined in the Court of Claims that Mr. Jackson had served 14,178 days wrongfully, so he got 50 percent of that current going rate, if you will, immediately."
In Jackson’s case, Cuyahoga County Court on Feb. 12 issued a judgment stating he was wrongfully imprisoned. On Feb. 20, Jackson filed a complaint for wrongful imprisonment with the Court of Claims, which determines the amount of compensation.
The complaint made Jackson eligible to receive half of what he is entitled to right away. If he continues with further proceedings in the Court of Claims, he could receive the rest of his compensation.
Additional compensation would include the other half of the amount Ohio pays under state law for wrongful imprisonment, as well as potential compensation or other financial damages including attorney fees, lost income, and medical or housing costs, Hill said.
Accepting the fixed amount of compensation offered by a state — which can vary from $5,000 in Wisconsin, for example, to $50,000 in Mississippi — is not the only way for the wrongfully imprisonment to seek redress. “Another is through civil litigation, which means suing the government, but that is not always possible,” Paul Cates, communications director for the Innocence Project, told Al Jazeera.
“You have to prove that law enforcement committed misconduct and that’s a pretty high bar to be able to prove that the police did something wrong,” Cates added.
In those cases, compensation can be much higher.
For example, last month a D.C. Superior Court judge ordered the District government to pay $9.2 million in damages to Kirk L. Odom, 52, the Washington Post reported.
Odom was wrongfully imprisoned for more than 22 years over the rape and robbery of a woman in 1981. The charges were based on erroneous forensic analysis and testimony, the Post reported.
It was the largest award in a case tried under the District’s wrongful conviction law. Judge Neal E. Kravitz ruled that Odom had suffered “profound” physical and psychological suffering during his imprisonment that included several prison rapes, his diagnosis with HIV, suicide attempts, depression, and family estrangement, the paper said.
There were a record number of exonerations in the U.S. last year, according to the National Registry of Exonerations report released in January. The 125 exonerations reported in 2014 was a 37 percent increase over the previous year. From 1989 to Jan. 20, 2015, the registry listed 1,535 exonerations in the U.S.
The increase was driven by the use of prosecutorial conviction integrity units, the report said. These units are groups of prosecutors who review past convictions.
The Innocence Project has called for the federal government to impose a set minimum amount of $50,000 in compensation per year of imprisonment for wrongful conviction, which the group said has been endorsed by Congress and former president George W. Bush.
Of the 60 percent of exonerees who received compensation, only about half received it through a state statute, the Innocence Project said. The median compensation from states amounted to $24,000 per year of time served.
Twenty states in the U.S. do not have statutes that require payments to individuals who were wrongfully imprisoned, the Innocence Project said.
Advocates say that, aside from monetary compensation, exonerated prisoners should receive other support, including financial support for basic necessities like food and transportation, help securing affordable housing, health care and counseling services, job skills training, and legal services to obtain public benefits, expunge criminal records, and regain custody of children.
“Despite their proven innocence, the difficulty of reentering society is profound for the wrongfully convicted; the failure to compensate them adds insult to injury,” the Innocence Project said on its website.
With wire services