Two bills that would grant rights to Wyoming’s wrongfully convicted received unanimous nods from legislators at the Joint Judiciary Interim Committee meeting in Lusk on Thursday. The committee will sponsor the bills at the next legislative session.
Committee members discussed two separate but related bills at the meeting. The first would give prisoners who are proven innocent by non-DNA evidence an avenue for a retrial; the second details compensation for those exonerated by DNA evidence.
Both bills build on a 2008 Wyoming law that ensures qualified inmates receive post-conviction DNA testing and provides for subsequent retrials.
The 2008 law does not, however, apply to prisoners proven innocent by means other than DNA evidence, nor does it stipulate any restitution for the wrongfully convicted.
Rocky Mountain Innocence Center Legal Director Jensie Anderson spoke to legislators on both topics.
She said only about 5 percent to 10 percent of cases rely on DNA evidence, so the non-DNA bill would apply to most cases. Actual innocence can be proven through a variety of other methods, she said, such as new alibi witnesses, confession from the actual perpetrator, testimony from co-conspirators, changed eyewitness identification, or the discovery of faulty science.
Anderson said the bill is very progressive, as only two states, Utah and Virginia, have similar laws.
The proposed compensation bill, which was discussed in May at the Joint Judiciary Interim Committee meeting in Jackson, proposes compensating those exonerated by DNA evidence $75 a day for every day they are imprisoned because of a wrongful conviction, up to a $300,000 cap.
The amount is relatively low in comparison to other states, Anderson said, but noted that the amount could be amended in the future.
During the discussion Rep. Mark Baker, R-Rock Springs, proposed the compensation be increased to $100 day with a $1 million cap.
Rep. Keith Gingery, R-Jackson and chairman of the committee, quickly quashed this recommendation.
“This is our third try with this bill,” he said. “We’re trying to get an amount that will actually get passed this time.”
The compensation law would additionally protect the state from being sued by those who were wrongfully convicted. As the law stands, those who are exonerated by DNA evidence have no limit as to how much they can argue for in a civil lawsuit.
Andrew Johnson, a Cheyenne man recently released after nearly 24 years in prison for a rape conviction, stands to be the first man in Wyoming to be exonerated by DNA evidence. He is currently out on bond, and prosecutors are deciding whether they will retry him.
If Johnson is exonerated, any bill passed in the next session will not apply to him retroactively, Anderson said.
Anderson said she was pleased with the support for both of the bills.
“It’s really progressive on the part of Wyoming Legislature,” she said. “I applaud their recognition on how important this law is.”