TOPEKA — Legislation introduced in the Kansas Legislature would compensate wrongfully convicted people $80,000 for each year they served in prison and $1 million if they were on death row.
If it is signed into law, Senate Bill 125 would make Kansas — which currently doesn’t have a wrongful conviction compensation law — one of the most generous states for exonerees. It will be discussed at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday.
“It is a very strong bill, and we look forward to working with the committee on it,” said Paul Cates, a spokesman for the Innocence Project.
To qualify for compensation, an exoneree must file a claim within two years of his or her release showing they were convicted of a felony under state law, served time in a Kansas prison, and were found to have not committed the crime. It would exclude defendants who pleaded guilty or pleaded no contest to the crime.
The Innocence Project would like to see that exemption removed. More than 10 percent of those exonerated by DNA testing previously had pleaded guilty to crimes they didn’t commit, Cates said.
In addition to $80,000 per year served, exonerees also would receive the costs of their civil lawsuit, including attorney fees. All payments would come out of the state general fund.
Legislation introduced last year in the Kansas House offered dramatically smaller payouts for exonerees: the federal minimum wage multiplied by 2,080, or about $15,000 per year. That bill, House Bill 2611, died in the House Judiciary Committee. It was introduced by former Rep. Ramon Gonzalez, R-Perry.
The most high-profile exoneration in the state in recent years was that of Floyd Bledsoe, wrongfully convicted of killing Camille Arfmann in Oskloosa in 1999. He was sentenced to life in prison but released in December 2015 after DNA results and suicide notes from his brother showcased his innocence.
Under the 2016 House bill, Bledsoe would have received $235,248. Under the 2017 Senate bill, he would be eligible for $1,248,000. Bledsoe said he was impressed by the Senate bill and credited Gonzalez, a police chief and special investigator who re-examined his wrongful conviction, with laying the groundwork for it.
“In his defense, he just wanted to get something going. He said he didn’t want ($235,248) to be the number, he just wanted to get something going,” Bledsoe said.
Tricia Bushnell, director of the Midwest Innocence Project and a former attorney for Bledsoe, said MIP supports the Senate bill.
“It provides fair compensation for the wrongfully convicted,” she said.
SB 125 also would turn over $5 million to the heirs of anyone wrongfully executed in Kansas. It is highly unlikely the provision will be necessary anytime soon; Kansas hasn’t executed an inmate since 1965.
The federal government and 32 states have wrongful conviction compensation laws on the books. Kansas is one of the 18 that do not. The federal law, established in 2004, compensates exonerees $50,000 for each year spent in federal prison, plus up to $50,000 for each year spent on death row.
Texas, with its notorious tough-on-crime reputation, has the nation’s most generous compensation law. It pays a lump sum of $80,000 per year served, along with lifetime annuity payments of $40,000 to $50,000 plus $25,000 for every year someone was wrongfully registered as a sex offender. As of mid-2016, the state had paid $93 million to wrongfully convicted Texans.
In the absence of a compensation law, Kansas exonerees still are able to receive compensation through civil lawsuits. Eddie Lowery was exonerated in 2003 after serving nine years in prison for a rape and assault in Ogden that he didn’t commit. Seven years later, he won a $7.5 million settlement from Riley County.