JACKSON — A state legislative committee endorsed a bill on Monday that would ensure compensation for prisoners exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing.
The bill states that if there is proof of innocence, a person will be entitled to $75 per day for every day he or she was in prison — up to a maximum of $300,000.
Natrona County District Attorney Michael Blonigen told the Joint Judiciary Interim Committee at a meeting in Jackson that the bill could limit the state’s liability in these rare but extreme situations.
“It’s a relatively low maximum payout of $300,000 ... where at the same time you could have it easily go into the millions of dollars,” he said.
Moreover, Blonigen said the state has an obligation to help these people get back on their feet after a mistake has been made.
“It’s not just legally smart, it’s a moral imperative that we do something to help these people,” he said.
The issue is particularly meaningful in light of the case of Andrew Johnson, who last month became the first Wyoming inmate to be released from prison based on post-conviction DNA testing. The Cheyenne resident spent nearly 24 years in prison after being convicted for a 1989 rape, but he is currently out on $10,000 bond as Laramie County prosecutors decide whether they will retry the case.
Jensie Anderson, Legal Director for the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, presented two stories of men who had been released with and without compensation after being proven innocent of crimes for which they were convicted in Utah.
The man who was released without compensation left prison with $109 in his pocket and was not afforded as much as a bus ticket. Anderson said the man is now destitute, transient and severely ill. Conversely, the other man was awarded about $120,000 and was able to fly home to his family, buy a piece of land and a car, get some health care and become a productive member of society.
“[The compensation] would at least allow them to end their struggle and begin a new life,” Anderson said.
According to a report from the Innocence Network, 27 states already offer monetary compensation for those exonerated by DNA evidence. Amounts vary by state, the presenters said, from $25,000 to $1 million.
At the conclusion of the session, committee Chairman Sen. John Schiffer, R-Kaycee, said the bill would move forward for consideration as a committee bill.