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Restitution very inconsistent for victims of wrongful conviction

Recently, two major convictions were overturned, one in Illinois, and one in Tennessee. And for now, the two paths to restitution look very different.

The man from Illinois served 18 years in prison, with 12 of those years on death row, and was charged with the murders of two rival gang members. He claimed that two Chicago police officers framed him by withholding evidence by keeping of separate case files. A federal jury awarded the man $22 million from a wrongful conviction lawsuit, one of the largest awards ever for a wrongful conviction in Chicago.

In 1978, the man from Tennessee had been convicted by a Memphis jury of burglary and rape, and sentenced to 115 years. In 2008, DNA testing cleared him of any wrongdoing. After serving over 31 years, he was released in 2009 and was only given $75. His requests for compensation, which under Tennessee law made him eligible for up to $1 million, have been denied twice by the parole board because they find that evidence isn’t clear and convincing. Currently, the man and his attorney are awaiting a response from Tennessee’s governor regarding their final appeal.

Some wrongful convictions occur because of human error. But many times (like in these two case), there has been misconduct. These very high stakes can come down to not only a life lived in or out of prison, but also to life or death. One study reported that in 2014, 4.1 percent of people who had been sentenced to death had been later found innocent.

The Innocence Project outlines common forms of misconduct used by law enforcement, such as what happened in the Illinois case - not handing over exculpatory (meaning it would be favorable for the defendant) evidence to prosecutors. Prosecutors can also withhold exculpatory evidence from the defense. Top reasons for wrongful convictions include eyewitness misidentification - such as what happened in Tennessee - forensic misconduct, and having an inadequate legal defense.

The National Registry for Exonerations has listed over 1,900 exonerations since 1989. These exonerations happened, in part, because of criminal justice system reforms, including the formation of wrongful conviction commissions in several states. What happened to these two men shows that more consistent oversight across the country is needed.

One way to reduce your chances of wrongful conviction is to have a proper legal defense. Contacting an experienced criminal defense attorney is a big first step in the right direction.

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Robert D. DiDio
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