Bill seeks compensation for wrongful convictions

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - A House fiscal committee heard public testimony Tuesday on a measure that would allow people who were wrongfully convicted to seek compensation from the state for the years they lost behind bars.

If passed, Washington would join 27 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government with similar laws on the books.

The measure would allow people who were wrongfully convicted to file a claim in superior court for damages against the state. The claimant must show their conviction was reversed or vacated based on significant evidence of innocence, and that they did not commit the crime they were charged with. Once a judge or jury determines the claim is valid, they can award damages.

Currently, the only option someone has is to sue the state, but they are required to sue on some basis other than the fact that they were wrongfully convicted, such as intentional wrongdoing or prosecutorial misconduct.

Under the bill heard by the House Appropriations Committee, compensation would be similar to the amounts paid by the federal government - a wrongly convicted person would receive $50,000 for each year of imprisonment, including time spent awaiting trial. An additional $50,000 would be awarded for each year on death row. A person would receive $25,000 for each year on parole, community custody, or as a registered sex offender.

The state also would pay all child support owed while the claimant was in custody, and reimburse all court and attorneys' fees up to $75,000. In addition, in-state college tuition waivers would be provided for the claimant and the claimant's children and/or step-children.

Alan Northrop, who was convicted of rape in 1993 and was cleared by DNA evidence after serving 17 years in prison, told the committee that the hardest part of his time behind bars was "not being able to watch my kids grow up."

Northrop, 48, told committee members that he hoped they would approve the bill, not just for him, but for others who recently have been exonerated "and those who are hoping for a miracle."

Similar bills have been introduced in prior years but have never gained traction. This is the third year Northrop has testified in favor of the measure before the Legislature.

The bill cleared the House Judiciary Committee earlier this month on a bipartisan 11-2 vote. It is not certain when the measure might come up for a vote in the House Appropriations Committee.

A fiscal note attached to the bill indicates the impact on the state can't be determined at this time due to all the varying factors, such as the number of claims, years on parole and legal costs, in addition to the college costs.

Supporters of state compensation say those costs are a small price to pay to repair a life.

Thomas Hudson of Innocence Project Northwest, which took on Northrop's case, told the House Appropriations Committee that his group is aware of only five people who would be able to file a claim under this bill, including Northrop.

"The money given to these few exonorees will have a minimal effect on this state's budget, but it will have a transformative effect on the lives of the exonorees and their families," he said.

No one testified against the measure Tuesday.

More than 300 people nationwide have been exonerated with DNA testing, according to The Innocence Project. Of those, more than 60 percent have been compensated through either lawsuits or state compensation laws.