CHEYENNE -- In 2013, Andrew Johnson was released from a 23-year prison stay after newly discovered DNA evidence exonerated him of a first-degree sexual assault and aggravated burglary conviction.
But upon his re-entry into society, he was given no help in the form of financial aid from the state.
And it will stay that way for at least another year.
Rep. Charles Pelkey, D-Laramie, withdrew a bill he was sponsoring Friday that would have provided $100 per day – up to $500,000 – for convicted felons who are jailed but later proven innocent with the help of DNA evidence.
The legislation would have applied to Johnson, a Cheyenne resident who is the first and only beneficiary of a relatively new state law that allows convictions to be overturned in the event of newly discovered DNA evidence. It also would have applied to any future cases.
But Pelkey said he wants to take the next year to rework the bill and hopefully fold compensation for felons who are exonerated with non-DNA evidence into it as well. He plans to reintroduce that legislation in 2016.
“As the sponsor of this bill, I would like to do this in the most methodical and thoughtful fashion,” he said.
Pelkey also acknowledged that getting the bill passed this session could be a stretch. The bill would have had to pass its first reading on the House floor by Monday.
A similar bill was introduced and nearly passed during last year’s session. But lawmakers ultimately killed the proposal on the final day of the session.
Pelkey said he was disappointed in that outcome. And despite withdrawing his bill, he said it’s an issue that should stay on the state’s radar.
“This, I think, is an important issue,” he said. “The state should be in a position to compensate them for the time that they lost.”
Aaron Lyttle is a Cheyenne lawyer and board member with the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center, a Salt Lake City-based nonprofit group that works with people who may have been wrongly convicted.
He agreed that people like Johnson who are put in this situation need some type of assistance.
“They don’t even get the transition programs that they might get if they are a guilty person who served their full sentence,” he said. “They just kind of turn you out on the streets with a T-shirt, even if it is, as it was in Andrew Johnson’s case, during a blizzard in the middle of March.”