"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

Saturday, April 11, 2015

If We Can’t Prevent Wrongful Convictions, Can We at Least Pay for Them?

Glenn Ford. Credit Henrietta Wildsmith/The Shreveport Times
Glenn Ford. Credit Henrietta Wildsmith/The Shreveport Times
A few weeks ago, a former prosecutor in Caddo Parish, La., named A. M. Stroud III wrote a letter to the editor of The Shreveport Times that quickly caught fire on the Internet. Over more than 1,400 anguished words, Stroud apologized for his leading role in the 1984 trial of Glenn Ford, a Louisiana man who was convicted of murder and spent nearly 30 years on death row in Angola, the state’s maximum-security prison, until last year, when his conviction was overturned and he was released.

“In 1984, I was 33 years old,” Stroud wrote. “I was arrogant, judgmental, narcissistic and very full of myself. I was not as interested in justice as I was in winning.” He apologized at length to Ford, then went on to declare that he now opposed the death penalty as an “abomination” that could not be justly administered. “No one should be given the ability to impose a sentence of death in any criminal proceeding,” Stroud wrote. “We are simply incapable of devising a system that can fairly and impartially impose a sentence of death because we are all fallible human beings.”

The pathos of Stroud’s conversion and his unsparing description of the many factors that made it impossible for Ford — a black man — to receive a fair hearing in the circumstances in which he was tried were what earned the letter its large and sympathetic audience far outside of Louisiana. But in fact, Stroud had been prompted to write by a relatively narrow aspect of Ford’s case: his effort to win compensation for the years he spent in prison, which Stroud felt was entirely deserved.

Righting all the wrongs of the criminal-justice system in Louisiana (or any state, perhaps) is a herculean undertaking, but compensating the wrongfully convicted is actually a relatively straightforward task. But Ford has yet to succeed in his bid for compensation, and the kind of law that made this possible — variations on which are on the books in many states — reveals a major failing that can and should be corrected sooner rather than later.

But in the past year, the state has turned against Ford. Given only a $20 debit card when he left Angola, he went to court to ask for compensation. Louisiana allows for such awards, capping the amount exonerees can receive at $250,000, along with up to $80,000 for “loss of life opportunities,” in the form of court-approved reimbursement for medical expenses, education and job training. Now 65, Ford has late-stage lung cancer that went untreated while he was in prison. The $330,000 he is eligible for doesn’t seem like much given the 30 years he lost. Yet so far, he hasn’t received a penny of even that amount.

Source: The New York Times, Emily Bazelon, April 9, 2015. Emily Bazelon is a staff writer for the magazine and the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School.

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