On Wrongful Imprisonment Settlement, Legislature Should Look in the Mirror

Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr. resigned in the wake of political outcry from a $16.8 million settlement made to four men a court concluded were wrongly convicted. While the settlement is hefty, the Connecticut General Assembly has only itself to blame. Of the nearly $40 million Connecticut made in wrongful imprisonment settlements since 2005, all the settlements but one were made in the last two years.

The General Assembly made that lone settlement in 2007 for $5 million to James C. Tillman. It set a de facto standard for all future wrongful imprisonment payouts.

During his time as claims commissioner, Vance awarded $39 million in wrongful imprisonment settlements. However, these awards averaged only $3.9 million per claimant. Vance was actually awarding less per claimant than the legislature had given to Tillman.

Senate Minority Leader, Len Fasano (R), spoke out after a settlement award of $16.8 million to four men convicted of a 1996 murder in New Haven. The four men were released in 2015 due to a mistake made by the prosecutor, not necessarily due to their innocence. “The award is unjust,” he said in a phone interview, adding that this case was “completely different” from those that involved exoneration through DNA evidence, like Tillman’s. Fasano has called for some form of legislative oversight. “I think there is a movement in this Capitol and we need to readjust and come up with a formula.”

Signed on May 21, 2007, “An Act Compensating James C. Tillman For His Wrongful Conviction and Incarceration” was co-sponsored by 23 state representatives, passed unanimously in both the House and Senate and was signed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell. The settlement was compensation for “loss of liberty and enjoyment of life, loss of income, loss of future earnings, physical injury, mental pain and suffering, psychological injury and loss of familial relationships,” according to Special Act 07-5. Tillman was found innocent of a rape and kidnapping charge through DNA evidence.

Lawmakers wrote into law consideration for loss of income, liberty, enjoyment of life and familial relationships for wrongful imprisonment in 2008. Authority to settle these claims fell to the claims commissioner. The Tillman settlement, voted for and approved by the Connecticut state legislature and signed by Governor Rell, set a precedent for all future claims.

Unlike twenty-five other states and the federal government, Connecticut currently has no guidelines as to how wrongful imprisonment claims should be calculated. Other states and the federal government compensate based on loss of potential income on a per year basis or have maximum allowable settlements.

Vance is returning to private practice as an attorney with Furey, Donovan, Tracy & Daly, P.C. where he will focus on personal injury, workman’s compensation and civil litigation cases.

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