A bill to compensate Wyoming victims of wrongful incarceration died in the twilight of the Legislature’s budget session Thursday.
The bill passed the Senate and the House, but the two chambers could not reach a consensus on amendments added throughout the 19-day session.
Senate File 30 would have provided up to $500,000 in compensation to people who could prove through DNA evidence that their incarceration was invalid.
After the bill cleared the Senate, House Speaker Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, and Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, added amendments that created extra steps for people seeking compensation.
Anyone wrongfully incarcerated then exonerated based on DNA evidence would have been required to both win a retrial and submit to a judicial review of evidence to see the money.
The Senate viewed the House amendments as a backward take on the legal process. Senators said the law would deem someone guilty until proven innocent and throw a costly hurdle in front of innocent people who had unjustly spent time in prison.
Some House members viewed it as a prudent barrier for anyone attempting to win money from the state.
On the last day of the session, lawmakers in both chambers were dismayed that the bill didn’t become law. Similar legislation failed in 2008, but lawmakers on the House and Senate judiciary committees were confident it would be written into state statute this session.
It’s a disappointment, said John Schiffer, R-Kaycee, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“This is something we need to do in this state,” he said. “It just wasn’t meant to be this year.”
At the center of the legislative debate was Andrew Johnson, a Cheyenne man wrongfully convicted of a 1989 rape charge whose conviction landed him in prison for nearly 24 years.
His name became synonymous with Senate File 30. Before Johnson, now 63, was incarcerated, he was earning a good living working for a construction company. But after spending decades in prison, he is in a precarious financial condition despite having a new job.
In April, Laramie County District Attorney Scott Homar called for Johnson's release after DNA evidence didn't match.
Homar canceled a retrial for Johnson in July but was still skeptical about his innocence.
“This is not an exoneration,” Homar said in a July media release. “There is certainly evidence that weighs against Mr. Johnson in this matter … evidence that was used to convict him at trial in 1989.”
Some say lawmakers like Lubnau and Nicholas lost sight of the bigger picture while focusing on Johnson.
It is the Legislature’s role to create a structure for people who were wrongfully imprisoned to receive compensation, not decide whether someone is innocent or guilty, said Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Lubnau and Nicholas added the amendments at the last minute and tried to create a whole other process to deal with Johnson, Gingery said.
“I kept telling everyone, 'Look at the bill hypothetically.' Everyone kept looking at the Johnson case,” he said. “Now we don’t have a bill.”
Lubnau said he was willing to “recede from his position” to pass the bill. He also proposed one last conference committee Thursday afternoon to try to find a consensus with other lawmakers. Neither happened.
On Thursday evening, he stood by his position.
“I think when people are trying to get into the state coffers, there should be some level of scrutiny about that,” he said.
Johnson’s advocates were unsure of his next steps, but they were forthcoming in their opinion about certain legislators.
Anyone who stood in the path of this bill should be ashamed, said Marla Kennedy, vice president of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, a nonprofit that worked on the Johnson case and has lobbied for the bill since 2008.
“What happened today in the Wyoming Legislature has left us speechless,” she said. “How do you say to a man who served 23 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, ’You get nothing?’”
Johnson could file a civil suit against the state if he is looking for compensation.
"He’s going to have to make the same showing there as we were asking him to make here," Lubnau said.