Latest exoneration brings renewed push for Pa. law to compensate wrongfully convicted

Anthony Wright

Anthony Wright

Pennsylvania is among the minority of states that do not provide compensation to people who have been wrongfully imprisoned.

Advocates for exonerated former inmates are pushing state lawmakers to pass a bill that would pay people who spent time behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit.

Pennsylvania state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf has sponsored a bill that would allow the wrongfully convicted to be given $50,000 for each year of incarceration as long as the claim is filed within two years of a pardon, acquittal or a vacated conviction. The bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Innocence Project says the recommended federal standard is up to $63,000 per year of incarceration. But states that have the laws vary. Wisconsin provides the wrongfully imprisoned with a flat sum of $25,000, whereas Texas law allows exonerated former inmates to receive up to $80,000 per year of confinement.

Peter Neufeld, the co-founder of the national Innocence Project, said Pennsylvania is among the twenty states that require people to file civil lawsuits for damages. He hopes that cases like that of Tony Wright, who was recently released from prison after serving nearly 25 years following a jury acquittal, will give momentum to the legislation.

“Hopefully, the legislature will now make amends and create a statute that would compensate people like Tony Wright,” Neufeld said.

Fifty-four Pennsylvanians have been exonerated after having been convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Supporters of state payments to those who have been exonerated argue that it could deter improper conduct on behalf of police and prosecutors.

On Oct. 4., Wright and other exonerees will be joining the Pennsylvania Innocence Project on a trip to Harrisburg to urge lawmakers to back the establishment of a compensation statute.

Pennsylvania Innocence Project Director Marissa Bluestine said she’s excited about the bill, though she does have some concerns with its current form.

For instance, the bill could act as a waiver against ever pursuing other civil rights claims in court. And, right now, the law requires the exonerated person’s innocence to be “clear and convincing,” a standard that might be too high for most exonerees to satisfy. Bluestine would rather the standard be the “preponderance of evidence,” which is the standard for receiving a new trial.

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