Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr. resigned Friday amid a controversy over a $16.8 million wrongful imprisonment settlement raising questions about how best to determine future payouts.
Over the past 10 years, the state of Connecticut has given out 11 wrongful imprisonment settlements totaling $39 million for an average claim of $3.5 million per claimant. All but one settlement of $5 million occurred in the past two years.
State governments are protected from lawsuits under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, but Connecticut law gives the claims commissioner authority to grant permission to sue the state under certain circumstances. In cases of wrongful imprisonment, where a person is found to have been innocent after serving part of a sentence, the claims commissioner has authority to grant monetary compensation. Up until Friday, Vance had that responsibility.
Four men, Carlos Ashe, Johnny Johnson, Sean Adams and Darcus Henry spent 17 years behind bars until being released in 2013. Vance came under heavy political and media scrutiny following the decision to award them $16.8 million. The disputed settlement is just one of the payments Connecticut will be making this year. Miguel Roman was released after 20 years when DNA evidence exonerated him of killing a 17-year-old girl. Roman is receiving $6 million in compensation.
Connecticut currently has no monetary guidelines for such settlements in contrast with 25 other states and the federal government. Rather, compensation is determined by the claims commissioner through unquantifiable factors such as loss of liberty, enjoyment of life, reputation, earnings and relationships.
The federal government, for instance, allows compensation up to $50,000 per year for imprisonment and up to $100,000 per year if the individual was on death row. Had any of these men been convicted in federal court, the government would have paid a maximum of $1 million.
The settlement for Ashe, Johnson, Adams and Henry came under fire because a court exonerated the group, not because they were necessarily innocent of the charges, but because a prosecutor failed to correct the record after a witness lied. According to the Connecticut Mirror, “the attorney general’s office argued in writing the four men did not meet the criteria for compensation because the order for a new trial did not conclude they were innocent.”
The Connecticut statute regarding compensation for wrongful imprisonment states that anyone will be awarded settlement based on the grounds of innocence or “a ground consistent with innocence.”
“I consider all the evidence and anyone can listen to the testimony,” Claims Commissioner Vance said on Thursday. Vance said he was unable to comment further and resigned the next day.
Prior to Vance’s settlement determination, two of the four men obtained a loan through the Connecticut Innocence Fund, a project of the Connecticut Bar Foundation.
The organization gives loans to released prisoners it determines have been wrongly convicted based on the evidence. The Connecticut Innocence Fund is funded through private donation.
It is difficult to measure the value of lost liberty but other states have made an effort. Some of the state statutes are harsh. Louisiana, for instance, offers only $15,000 per year of incarceration and Montana will not even consider compensation unless the individual is exonerated through DNA evidence. New Hampshire will only offer $20,000 for the entirety of imprisonment.
Most states, however, determine settlements based on loss of income, the state’s average wage or the individual’s earnings during the years prior to conviction. Other states impose maximum settlements. Massachusetts, for instance, offers a maximum of $500,000 regardless of time served.
Paul Cates, communications director for the Innocence Project, a national group which works to exonerate innocent prisoners through DNA evidence, says their organization also has guidelines for awards. While they do not support any legislation that imposes a limit, the organization does believe that awards should be at least $63,000 per year of incarceration.
Pace University School of Law Prof. Adele Bernhard specializes in wrongful imprisonment settlements. “The fact of the matter is that you can never pay anybody back for time lost and liberty lost. Obviously, you can’t,” Bernhard said. “But on the other hand I think we have a moral obligation to do something for the people who have been the victims of the criminal justice system. We know that sometimes mistake will occur and that people will be wrongfully convicted. And no matter how much we work to improve our system, we know that this will happen. I think that we would all agree that we owe people something for their loss.”
Bernhard said that having a statute that limits wrongful imprisonment settlements does not necessarily mean that an individual cannot bring a civil suit against that state. “Just because you’ve wrongly convicted does not mean you can bring a civil suit,” Bernhard said. “You can’t bring a civil suit unless your constitutional rights were violated and you don’t have a right to a perfect investigation.”
A civil suit is not subject to state-imposed limits, but can be very difficult to win. The plaintiff would have to prove that police or prosecutors knowingly violated the right to due process or a fair trial. Uncovered DNA evidence that exonerates a person like Miguel Roman does not qualify for a civil suit, as the police were using the best methods they had at the time.
Ultimately it is a moral question based on what society values and how those values can translate into the only form of compensation available – money. Most people would agree that a one dollar settlement for 20 years in prison is too little; most would also agree that $1 billion is too much. While some awards may appear within reason, there is no way to determine how reasonable a settlements is unless lawmakers can define what isn’t reasonable.
“We all depend on the criminal justice system to keep out streets safe,” Bernhard said, “and we need police officers and prosecutors and yet we know at the same time that we don’t have a perfect system and some people will be victims.”
Correction: This article previously misstated details about the Connecticut Innocence Fund.