The American criminal justice system isn’t perfect. The most severe consequence of this fact is the imprisonment of innocent people. The majority of states acknowledge the risk—and gravity—of depriving innocent people of their freedom with legislation that provides for compensation for people who have been wrongfully convicted and incarcerated. Generally, these laws are called wrongful imprisonment statutes. They provide relief separate and apart from civil lawsuits. (A wrongfully convicted person, depending on the facts, might also have a viable lawsuit against the government.)
For information on related topics, see Factual Innocence and Can I sue the prosecution for filing charges against me?
Who’s on the Hook?
In the overwhelming majority of criminal cases where a prison sentence is possible, a jury determines whether the defendant is guilty or not. (Defendants occasionally opt for a “judge trial,” in which the magistrate determines the issue.) But a wrongful conviction isn’t necessarily the fault of the jury—a witness might have made a false identification or the science might have been faulty. So, who pays the price (literally) for a wrongful conviction?
Wrongful imprisonment statutes impose financial liability upon the state. They reflect the view that it is the state’s responsibility alone to try to make whole the innocent “convict.”
Wrongful imprisonment statutes vary somewhat, and some have more requirements than others. But they generally require that the wrongfully convicted person prove three elements:
- Convicted of a crime. The defendant must have been convicted of a criminal offense. This means any offense for which a person could be imprisoned. (A juvenile offense isn’t typically considered a criminal offense.)
- Served time. The defendant must have actually served time in a state prison. Time spent in a local jail doesn’t qualify.
- Actually innocent. The defendant must provide evidence that he or she is actually innocent. Though it’s often not available, DNA evidence is usually the best way to prove someone else committed the crime.
Contributing to Conviction
Many wrongful imprisonment statutes have an escape clause for the government, providing that the imprisoned person isn’t entitled to compensation if she contributed to her own conviction. A defendant’s choice to plead guilty despite being innocent might—or might not—provide this “out” for the government.
Example: Steve pleads guilty to murder charges on the advice of his attorney, who failed to inform him that there was evidence proving his innocence. Steve wasn’t fully informed when he pleaded guilty, so he is still eligible for compensation. (See State v. Moore, 165 Ohio App. 3d 538 (2006).)
Other examples of contributing to one’s conviction include:
- voluntarily confessing
- hiding or destroying evidence
- trying to prevent a witness from testifying
- trying to get a witness to testify untruthfully, and
- covering up someone else's guilt.
What’s the Damage?
Each state with a compensation system for wrongfully convicted defendants has its own method of determining how much to award—for example, $100 per day or $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration. Some impose limits on the amount the defendant can collect, while others provide little guidance at all in determining the amount of the award.
Talk to a Lawyer
If you’ve been wrongfully convicted of a crime, consult a knowledgeable lawyer. Such an attorney can advise you of the applicable law and let you know whether you have additional or alternative options for seeking compensation.