Monday, April 09, 2007

Wrongly convicted prisoners should always be financially compensated by the state

{ Audio this essay @ 7min. @ 1.6mb } After 22 years in prison, Anthony Capozzi was freed--for a crime he didn't commit. As it turned out another man, who bore a close resemblance to him, was guilty, but rape victims identified Capozzi in lineups, so the state brought (and obviously won) a case against him. Now Capozzi was sentenced to a term of 11 to 35 years, and had been denied parole five times since becoming eligible in 1997. Yet--big surprise!--he kept refusing to admit to the crimes; naturally, in a Kafkaesque way, this made it impossible to complete a mandatory sex offender program, so there he sat in prison.

Eventually, a serial offender, so dubbed The Bike Path Rapist, (Altemio Sanchez) was identified by means of DNA evidence. Unfortunately, back in 1983 and '84, Capozzie looked a bit too much like Sanchez, and when Capozzie was identified by various victims in the line up, that was evidence enough for Erie county, NY prosecutors to put him away for 22 years; on this mistake, District Attorney Frank Clark stated:
"I truly regret that this had to happen, everybody trying to do the right thing and going through all the right steps and coming out with the wrong result. I think a simple 'I'm sorry' would never be enough."[1]

It is upon the DA's last remark where I pick up my theme.

First, I have always believed that the state should compensate wrongly convicted prisoners. And I've always been suspicious that the US government has been conniving in hiding the statistics regarding wrongful convictions. Apparently, I'm not alone in my suspicions:
One difficulty faced by those seeking information about exoneration's of erroneously convicted persons is the absence of official statistical information. Incredibly, the government, which collects and disseminates crime statistics "by the gigabyte and the shelf-full," as [a well received book] Actual Innocence notes, fails to include any information about convictions of the innocent, or about exoneration of the wrongfully convicted, in its official crime statistics. Insofar as government crime statistics are concerned, it would appear that no innocent person was ever convicted in the United States of America. "The innocent neither count nor are they counted.... Not one number is assigned to represent the distinct matter of the innocent person. No one has the job of figuring out what went wrong, or who did wrong. No account is taken of the innocent person, wrongly convicted, ultimately exonerated.... America keeps virtually no records when a conviction is vacated based on new evidence of innocence. The only place to study innocence is through accounts carried in newspapers and by broadcast news, a most haphazard net."[2]

Naturally, DAs have no interest in admitting they screwed up. Although career advancements are rightly tied to taking dangerous people off the street, without control variables on the percentage of people wrongly taken off the streets, prosecutors cannot readily be scrutinized for their mistakes, and thus for whether they have been justifiably promoted to positions of increased legal authority within the community.

Second, it is no surprise that wrongful convictions are the result of other procedural and social problems:
In 64 recent cases of DNA exoneration examined by the Innocence Project, mistaken eyewitness identification by the victim or a witness was a contributing factor to the erroneous conviction in 84% of the cases. Other contributing factors included police misconduct (50%), prosecutorial misconduct (42%), inept defense counsel (27%), false or fabricated confessions (24%), and misconduct by jailhouse snitches (21%). A third of the 64 cases involved tainted or fraudulent scientific evidence purporting to show the defendant was guilty. Some of this false evidence came from police crime labs. Racism is also an important consideration. Of the 64 exonerated defendants, 57% were black and 11% were Latino, whereas 29% were white.[2]

As was seen in the Capozzi case, witness testimony was instrumental in that wrongful conviction. Even under ideal condtions, people are often forced to interpret their perceptions, but when conditions are stressful and significantly removed in time, witness testimony becomes highly problematic; and, maximally so when there is capital sentencing for a crime. (Hence, why I'm also against capital punishment.)

Third, the state already respects property rights, and there has been much ballyhoo about imminent domain, and how various state governments have been idiotic in respecting that right. The US constitution enshrines not only property rights, but freedom of movement rights (liberty). Thus, since the state at least recognizes due compensation for property rights, it is only consistent for it to recognize due compensation for freedom of movement rights. Taking away rightfully acquired land requires the state to compensate; likewise, taking away innocently exercised liberty requires the state to compensate.

Finally, there ought to be some objective procedure for determining compensation. I would suggest that one should be reimbursed at the current minimum wage times the number of 40-hour work-week capable years served. For example, at 22 years, times 50 weeks, times 40 hours @ New York state minimum wage of $7.15 per hour; this means Mr. Capozzi should receive from the state of New York (again, the governmental body responsible for his wrongful imprisonment) a total of $314,600. I'm sure Mr. Capozzi, or those who have guardianship over him,[3] could make a go at restarting his life with that kind of cash. (Texas has something like a version of this.[4] ) Naturally, individuals would maintain the right to pursue further amends against the state[5], but I'm arguing here for a default compensation for any wrongfully imprisoned citizen.

More generally, the state could think of such compensatory sums as "misadventure capital" to be invested back into the lives of its otherwise law-abiding citizens.



[1] Carolyn Thompson, "Man Cleared After 22 Years in Prison" Newsvine (Accessed 4/07/2007)

[2] Donald E. Wilkes "Convicting and Unconvicting the Innocent" University of Georgia School of Law (Accessed 4/07/2007)

[3] Mr. Capozzi has some mental disabilities, which I imagine was quite convenient towards his prosecution back in day.

[4] Marie Delahoussaye "Bill would aid victims of wrongful imprisonment" The Daily Texan Online (Accessed 4/09/2007)

[5] These are known as Wrongful Imprisonment Lawsuits.

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