Leesville business owner Rickie Johnson, who spent nearly 26 years in Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for a crime he did not commit, is pushing state legislators for better compensation for the wrongfully convicted. (Lauren Manary / American press)
Last Modified: Sunday, June 08, 2014 1:08 PM
LEESVILLE — Rickie Johnson regrets missing the milestones — birthdays, graduations, holidays with children and grandchildren.
Johnson, 58, spent 2 1/2 decades in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Now exonerated and free, he struggles to make ends meet.
He has no health insurance; is ineligible for Medicare and Medicaid; and — with a quarter-century of work years lost — has no Social Security or retirement savings to fall back on.
Johnson, who was released from prison in 2008, runs a leather shop in Leesville. He picked up the trade during his years in Angola State Penitentiary, where he spent most his time after being wrongfully convicted of aggravated rape in Many in 1983.
In middle age, he can finally spend time with the children he left behind as toddlers, and with their children. But for Johnson retirement is a pipe dream. The money he receives from the state is quickly running out.
‘Full of rage and pain’
Louisiana law allows wrongfully convicted people to petition the state for compensation — $25,000 per year for each year of incarceration. But the law caps the overall amount at $250,000.
Johnson and Michael Anthony Williams, who served nearly 24 years in Angola for a rape he didn’t commit, are pushing legislators for better compensation for the wrongfully convicted.
“The ones who actually did the crime, they’re taken better care of than we are,” Johnson said, noting that he had access to health care in prison. “They’d rather spend millions of dollars on prisoners than give us a fair amount.”
Calvin Willis spent nearly 22 years in Angola for a rape he did not commit. He was released in 2003 — before Louisiana offered compensation to the wrongfully convicted — and received no compensation until 2009. Willis, who is 56 and lives with his wife and grandson, said he has struggled to find work with his lack of higher education and a bad back.
“My grandson looks at me and asks me for things — nice clothes, he wants to have a nice Christmas and all of that. It makes me feel awful,” he said. “I feel like I’m less than a man, that I’m not able to support my family. It hurts me inside. I’m full of rage and pain.”
Under current law, Willis will receive his last payment in 2015.
According to the Innocence Project, about a third of those exonerated receive no compensation after their release from prison. Just over half of all states, including Louisiana, offer some form of remuneration to those found innocent.
Paul Cates, a spokesman for the Innocence Project, said Louisiana’s exoneree compensation is “not great.” The group advocates for compensation of at least $50,000 per year — twice what Louisiana allots.
Cates said many of the wrongfully convicted have few legal options and that it’s “almost impossible” to sue for prosecutorial conduct. The Innocence Project New Orleans advocates for $100,000 per year of time served.
Williams said that some states that do not have codified compensation laws often offer better benefits to the wrongfully convicted. For example, Robert Clark, who spent 25 years in a Georgia prison, was awarded $1.2 million over a 15-year period by Georgia lawmakers.
Williams, who was wrongfully convicted of rape in 1981, had no family to come back to when he was released in 2005. In his first month out of prison, he lived in a homeless shelter while he went out and earned his first paycheck.
After nearly a decade out of prison, Williams, 49, said he is just now breaking even on his debts and repaying the favors and loans given to him over the years. He lives in a modest apartment in Baton Rouge and works a construction job.
Louisiana offered no compensation to the wrongfully convicted until 2005 when the state Legislature voted to provide up to $150,000.
State Rep. Herbert Dixon, D-Alexandria, said he will push a bill in the next legislative session to set aside money for the wrongfully convicted. Under the measure, proceeds from a $6 nonrefundable civil court filing fee would go into the Innocence Compensation Fund.
“The problem we found is, where do you go in the budget to get the money?” Dixon said. “It’s perplexing to me, and it’s perplexing to my colleagues.”
In 2012, Dixon pushed for an expansion of Louisiana’s compensation law, capping the overall amount at $500,000. The bill passed, but the cap was instead set at $250,000. Previously, exonerees had been entitled to $150,000, which they could receive as lump sum.
Exonerees had to seek out sponsors in the Legislature to appropriate the money.
‘Trying to feed a family’
The best compensation laws, Cates said, are in Texas, where exonerees receive $80,000 per year, with an additional $25,000 per year spent on parole or as a registered sex offender.
The state offers reintegration programs to help exonerees back on their feet, including payments for child support, tuition assistance at a career center or institution of higher learning, and a chance to buy a health insurance plan. In Mississippi exonerees can receive $50,000 per year up to $500,000 within three years of their pardon.
Kristin Wenstrom, staff attorney with the Innocence Project New Orleans, said exonerees often have a fight ahead of them to get their compensation. Under state law, they must be first fully cleared by the state, and the attorney general must agree that they are “factually innocent” — which can take months.
“So they’re out of prison, and that’s good,” she said. “But they’re not even eligible for compensation, and many of them have no place to go.”
Exonerees must go back to the same district court that found them guilty and petition for compensation — a decision left to the judge. Exonerees can also petition for up to $80,000 more to cover “loss of life opportunities.”
Wenstrom cited the lack of coverage for attorney fees as a potential trap for exonerees as they seek compensation. Some have taken on lawyers to petition for compensation only to win and see 30 percent to 40 percent go to attorneys. Wenstrom is representing 14 compensation-seeking exonerees pro bono.
While Louisiana does not bar exonerees from suing the state, Wenstrom said, the likelihood of winning such a case is slim because some wrongful imprisonments have no legal culpability.
“It’s extremely difficult to sue police departments and district attorney’s offices,” she said. “It ends up being a much longer process than the compensation process.”
Willis, who was exonerated with the help of the Innocence Project and inspired Williams and Johnson to do so, said the money is just not enough.
“The money is already gone before I get it,” he said. “The IRS wants their money, the medical bills and everything, the payments to the place that I’m living. I can’t just live with someone for free. I’m trying to feed a family, and I’m unemployed. Everything is really messed up.”