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Kansas To Consider State Compensation For Wrongly Imprisoned

Michael Coghlan
flickr Creative Commons

Kansas legislators expect to consider proposals next year to make it easier for people wrongfully convicted of major crimes to win compensation from the state following the third recent high-profile release of men exonerated after years in prison.

Lawmakers in both parties said this week that they want to discuss setting a rule for awarding compensation in such cases but acknowledged they don't yet see agreement on the details. The federal government and 32 states have compensation laws, making Kansas one of only 18 without them, according to Innocence Project, which works to free wrongly convicted defendants.

Their renewed interest comes after last week's release in Wyandotte County of Lamonte McIntyre, 41, who spent 23 years in prison for a double murder he always said he didn't commit. A judge was reviewing his 1994 convictions and life sentences when the district attorney's office dropped the charges against him.

A Kansas Senate committee had a hearing but didn't act earlier this year on a proposal that was partly a response to a Jefferson County judge's release in December 2015 of Floyd Bledsoe, who spent more than 15 years in prison for the shooting death of his sister-in-law but was later cleared by DNA evidence.

And in June, a Johnson County judge freed Richard Anthony Jones. He spent nearly 17 years in prison for a 1999 robbery until supporters found another man who looked enough like him that the victim and other witnesses said they could no longer be sure who committed the crime.

Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat who pushed for the legislation earlier this year, said compensating wrongly imprisoned people represents "low-hanging fruit" for "correcting manifest injustices."

"It should be a simple matter," Haley said. "We have other states that we can look to for guidelines."

The proposal before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year would have allowed people wrongly convicted of a felony to file state-court lawsuits to collect $80,000 for each year they are imprisoned and $1 million if they were wrongfully sentenced to death for capital murder. If a defendant were wrongly executed, his or her family would be entitled to $5 million in damages.

The committee did not vote on the measure so that the issue could be studied further. Chairman Rick Wilborn, a McPherson Republican, said he expects to have a report from legislative researchers on other states' laws when lawmakers reconvene in January.

"I think we want to venture into trying to get some fix on that issue," Wilborn said.

McIntyre's attorneys have stopped short of saying whether they'll take further action after winning his release.

People freed from prison following wrongful convictions can file federal civil rights lawsuits, as Bledsoe did last year. But Michelle Feldman, a state policy advocate for the Innocence Project, said such lawsuits are difficult to win because it typically requires egregious misconduct.

In Kansas, a person freed from prison also can seek compensation from the Legislature, which considers dozens of claims against the state each year as part of its budgeting process.

But Feldman sees that process as a potential "popularity contest" meant to handle smaller grievances. And Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, said the results can be inconsistent.

"We need to try to establish a system in the law to try to compensate people who've been wrongly incarcerated," Carmichael said. "The unfortunate thing is we can never fully compensate those people for the loss they have suffered."