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The Price of Lost Freedom 

Wrongly convicted inmates deserve help as they struggle to put their lives back together.

Louisiana's justice system is leaving innocent victims in its wake -- victims who deserve this state's help as they struggle to put their lives back together. Since 1989, state courts have dismissed charges against at least 17 inmates -- the highest 'exoneration rate' in the nation. Our justice system has compromised lives in very fundamental ways. It has taken away their freedom for as many as 28 years.

Louisiana is not the only state looking at larger numbers of exonerations. It's a nationwide trend, largely due to increased DNA testing and advocacy by groups such as the national Innocence Project and its spin-offs in nearly every state, including the Innocence Project New Orleans. Other legislatures have held hearings on the issue of compensating those who were wrongly convicted and locked up. As a result, more than 20 states now compensate such inmates. Rep. Cedric Glover (D-Shreveport) would like to see that idea implemented in Louisiana. His House Bill 663 would make awards equaling $25,000 per year served (up to $500,000 total) to innocent people who spent time confined in Louisiana's prisons. It deserves to become law.

Currently, exonerated inmates are released like any others. Each leaves with a bag of possessions and $10 from the Department of Corrections. Often, the skills they had when they entered have not been improved; prisoners facing life without parole do not get the same level of job training as inmates with definite release dates. Inmates on death row don't learn a trade or even get a GED. Until such former inmates go through the state's lengthy pardon process, their murder or rape conviction will still show up when employers run their records. As a result, many bring news clips of their release to job interviews -- to prove that they are not violent criminals. Even so, potential employers are often wary of hiring someone who spent so much time in prison. Some former inmates take a bus back home where no one is waiting. Often, exonerees have lost their property, housing, possessions and loved ones. Their children were raised without them; their parents have often died.

The price of lost freedom is not easy to determine. What's a fair price for Greg Bright and Earl Truvia, who spent nearly 28 years each in Angola for a murder conviction that hinged on one incredibly unreliable eyewitness? What's fair for John Thompson, who spent 18 years on Louisiana's death row for what Louisiana's Fourth Circuit called the prosecution's 'intentional hiding' of evidence? What's fair for Ryan Matthews, who was arrested at age 17 and felt the threat of execution for seven years? 'Ryan essentially grew up on death row,' said Billy Sothern, one of Matthews' lawyers. 'At age 24, he had to figure out how to begin his life.'

Earlier this month, Rep. Glover told the House Criminal Justice Committee about the time he asked students in his district to raise their hands if they would, in exchange for $1 million, spend 10 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. 'Nobody took my offer,' he said.

In comparison to other states, the money proposed in Glover's bill is about average. Montana provides educational funding to those affected; Texas pays exactly the same as the proposed Louisiana amount and Alabama pays a minimum of $50,000 for each year spent behind bars. House Bill 663 also provides for three years of medical and counseling services, one year of job-skills training, and educational expenses at any school within Louisiana's public university system. Those sensible supports should help wrongly convicted people live healthy, self-supporting lives.

We don't agree with every provision in the bill. Currently, the bill demands that wrongly convicted people be recommended for a gubernatorial pardon by the state Pardon Board. They then need to prove their innocence -- again -- before the Nineteenth Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, which handles cases concerning state government. The judge would then determine the amount of compensation. This two-step process is burdensome and should be streamlined. Overall, however, the bill is strong and well-written and deserves our legislators' full support.

At the same time, we must search out the root causes of wrongful convictions. Clearly, our state's woefully underfunded indigent defense system is part of the problem. The state of Louisiana needs to provide competent defense counsel that will be able to prove innocence, especially when the client is illiterate, mentally ill or an adolescent. The state should ensure that DNA testing is made available, without undue barriers, in cases where it can determine guilt or innocence. Legislators also should create a commission to examine the causes of wrongful convictions. In other states, such commissions have enacted safeguards against common causes of wrongful convictions, including mistaken identification, false confessions, incompetent and/or underfunded defense lawyers, and prosecutorial misconduct. Only with such a thorough undertaking can Louisiana and its citizens begin to have confidence in our justice system and its ability to punish the guilty -- and protect all of the innocent.

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