Innocence Project at UVA Law Helps Obtain $6.25 Million in Compensation for Clients, Proposes Reforms
The Innocence Project at the University of Virginia School of Law recently worked with state lawmakers to obtain $6.25 million in compensation for six clients pardoned over the last year. The project also contributed to broader reforms on how wrongfully incarcerated defendants are compensated.
Virginia is the only state where statutory compensation is awarded by the Legislature on a case-by-case basis, explained Professor Juliet Hatchett ’15, associate director of the Innocence Project Clinic.
Lawmakers approved compensation via individual bills to Innocence Project clients Joey Carter, Lamar Barnes, Bobbie Morman Jr., Emerson Stevens, Jervon Tillman, and Eric Weakley after they received absolute pardons.
The clients participated in a broader lobbying effort as well, as the project proposed a range of reforms.
“We are very proud of the work our six clients who were exonerated in this past year did to try to improve compensation in this state for everyone who will follow in their footsteps,” Hatchett said.
She said the project took on the reform effort because Virginia’s existing compensation scheme is insufficient.
“Every person who serves time for a crime that he or she did not commit should be compensated for his or her wrongful incarceration,” said Professor Jennifer L. Givens, director of the clinic.
Sponsored by Sen. Louise Lucas and Del. Rip Sullivan ’87, the legislation, which passed unanimously after several rounds of revision, makes several changes to laws governing compensation for wrongful incarceration:
- An initial lump sum for most exonerated individuals will be 25% of the total award, rather than 20% as outlined in prior state code. The remaining 75% will be paid out over a 10-year annuity, rather than 25 years.
- Defendants who accept Alford pleas (pleading guilty while maintaining their innocence) are now eligible for compensation.
- The award amount is now affixed at $55,000 per year of wrongful incarceration, with annual adjustment for inflation. (It previously was set at 90% of per capita income.)
- New language ensures that the award is not taxable by the state.
The bill was signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin on April 11.
Hatchett said the project proposed more substantial reforms that were not enacted. For example, the initial bill aimed to make the entire payout a lump sum, which only happens now if exonerees are over 60 or terminally ill. The project also sought to expand eligibility to those who plead guilty.
“Roughly 20% of wrongfully convicted individuals plead guilty to crimes they did not commit, and they do so for rational reasons in a country with a severe trial penalty,” Hatchett said. “Those individuals are no less deserving of compensation for the years they lose.”
The project has advocated for increasing yearly payments to match median household income, which was about $81,000 in 2020; making payment to exonerees automatic, rather than requiring a bill to pass through the General Assembly; and removing the “clean hands” bar, which stops payment if an exoneree receiving an annuity is convicted of an unrelated felony.
“We know that being wrongfully convicted can contribute to economic hardship, mental health struggles and addiction — all of which are risk factors for future crime,” Hatchett said.
Though the new law represents progress, Hatchett said, Virginia’s compensation to the wrongfully incarcerated needs considerable further revision.
“Virginia should pay its wrongfully convicted a fair amount, all at once, without strings attached, and we will keep fighting to make that our reality,” Hatchett said. “Compensating the innocent should not be a partisan issue — and, indeed, the broader reform bill received bipartisan support in the Senate — but it became a partisan issue in the House.”
The Innocence Project gives law students hands-on experience investigating claims of innocence in Virginia through a yearlong for-credit clinic as well as a separate student pro bono effort.
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