Freedom or Restitution for the Wrongfully Convicted
by Jayson Hawkins
"I’m sitting here a semblance, trying to get back to me,” Jimmy Dennis admitted from the relative safety of his living room, afraid to venture beyond his doorstep.
Dennis exhibited the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, including menacing nightmares and acute paranoia, which are often associated with combat veterans and victims of violent crimes.
After surviving 25 years on Pennsylvania’s death row for a murder he did not commit, he nearly qualifies as both.
Dennis was arrested in 1991 for the slaying of a teenage girl at a Philadelphia bus stop. He has always maintained that he was miles away at the time, on his way to a singing practice.
Not until 2016 did a federal judge agree that prosecutors had deliberately suppressed evidence supporting Dennis’ alibi and implicating a different suspect. Judge Anita A. Brody stated in her decision that Dennis “was wrongly convicted of murder and sentenced to die for a crime in all probability he did not commit.”
One unfamiliar with the Byzantine rules of the American criminal justice system might assume that this marked the end of Dennis’ ordeal, that he was immediately released and compensated for the loss of a quarter-century of his liberty, dignity, and pursuit of a meaningful life.
Instead, prosecutors presented Dennis with a grim choice: either sign a no-contest plea that would absolve the city of its wrongdoings against him while granting him freedom or fight a lengthy legal battle over the violation of his civil rights while remaining in prison.
“The whole thing was they didn’t want me to sue,” said Dennis.
He opted for freedom rather than risk remaining behind bars for the chance of having his innocence acknowledged. Dennis’ situation is but one example among the increasing number of devil’s bargains that prosecutors across the nation have been laying before the wrongfully convicted. It presents a losing proposition either way for individuals who have already been so badly wronged by the system. On the one hand, asking them to sacrifice even more of their freedom to eventually be exonerated or, on the other, to surrender any claim that the missing years of their lives have any value.
This tactic has grown more commonplace as wrongful convictions have continued to pile up. Jeffrey S. Gutman, a George Washington University law professor, found that over the last 30 years municipalities have had to cough up $2.5 billion in compensation for mistaken prosecutions. In excess of 30 states have statutes mandating payouts in these situations, or the wronged party may pursue a civil lawsuit.
The settlement of wrongful conviction claims remains merely a matter of doing business for areas with large tax bases, but others have struggled to pay their reckonings.
A bill to replenish Michigan’s fund for such claims had to be enacted earlier in 2019, and residents of Gage County, Nebraska, may face a several thousand dollar tax hike to compensate a half-dozen individuals who were railroaded into prison. Few locals objected to the hasty conviction of the six, and the exonerees have received little but vitriol from their former neighbors now that the bill has come due.
Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477 (1994), a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court decision, ruled that a defendant’s criminal case must be favorably terminated for him or her to have grounds for a civil rights suit. Lower courts have generally interpreted this to mean an affirmative finding of innocence, which seldom occurs.
More often the case is returned to its original jurisdiction where prosecutors have the option of retrying it. The alternative is to drop the charges—typically construed as an admission that the defendant is not guilty—though many prosecutors have now adopted the strategy of tempting the defendant with a plea deal promising time-served and instant freedom.
More scrupulous prosecutors have criticized such deals as unfair and coercive, as the only other option left to the defendant is to remain behind bars.
“It flies in the face of our most basic concepts of an accurate and just system,’’ the current district attorney of Philadelphia, Larry Krasner, remarked about Dennis’ case. “Simply put, I think the whole thing is despicable.”
Faced with the awful decision, Dennis’ family weighed heavily on his mind. He had already lost his father, his mother was aged and sick, and he had missed his daughters’ entire childhoods.
Ultimately, he chose to take the plea to get home to his loved ones, but it has not been without regrets.
“To this day, sometimes I hate the fact that I let these people off the hook,” he lamented.
Dennis’ choice may not haunt him much longer. In May a federal judge, Eduardo C. Robreno, determined that Dennis’ plea deal was a separate conviction from the original charge, thus opening the door for Dennis to pursue a suit on the first one.
The ruling has been appealed, and the fate of those forced into making decisions like Dennis’ now rests in the hands of the higher court. Hope remains that they may not be wronged yet again.
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