Connecticut Exonerees Ask Lawmakers For Help After Prison

By Brian Steele | March 18, 2024, 6:37 PM EDT ·

The Connecticut Legislature's joint judiciary committee is considering sweeping changes to the way the state compensates exonerated convicts, and three men who each served more than 18 years in prison urged lawmakers Monday to make one edit that would apply the bill to pending state-level claims.

Senate Bill 439 would remove a requirement that exonerees who receive compensation from the Office of the Claims Commissioner give up the right to pursue a separate lawsuit, such as for civil rights violations, and speed up the process by requiring the commissioner to make a determination within 90 days of a hearing. The bill also would provide for additional compensation in the form of social services, place exonerees at the front of the line in housing voucher programs, and allow a claim to proceed even after the claimant has died.

Adam Carmon, Vernon Horn and Marquis Jackson told the committee in separate testimony that they each spent at least 18 years in prison for murders they did not commit. Carmon was incarcerated for nearly 29 years before his conviction was overturned in 2022 when a court found that investigators had suppressed another suspect's confession.

"This bill should be passed because it will help get exonerees on their feet more quickly," Carmon said, describing his difficulty in getting a car and medically necessary dental treatment despite his Medicaid coverage. "But the bill, as written, wouldn't help people like me who were exonerated in the past several years and have pending claims. Passing this bill is the right thing to do."

Carmon, Horn and Jackson said their circumstances forced them to take out predatory loans upon their release, which carry exorbitant interest rates. The lenders expect repayment to come from any compensation that the men receive through their claims; Horn, who was in prison for 18 years starting at age 17, referred to the arrangement and 30% interest as "highway robbery."

"Since I got home, I have not gotten any help. I have not been compensated in any way," Horn said. "No one came to help me. I was just thrown in the street. 'Go make it.'"

Jackson was Horn's co-defendant and said he spent 19 years in prison — half of his life — before he was "vomited back out to the community with no assistance from the state of Connecticut." Now, he is a homeowner and owns a business, but only due to the loans he took out against his pending claim; he is pursuing a civil rights lawsuit and filed for compensation with the claims commissioner in July 2018.

State Rep. Robyn A. Porter, D-Hamden, said Jackson and Horn's case was "an atrocity" and the loans at issue are "scandalous."

The bill also expands eligibility for filing a claim. Right now, eligibility is limited to situations where a complaint or criminal information was dismissed "on grounds of innocence," but the new bill adds "grounds consistent with innocence."

On March 1, the judiciary committee unanimously approved a $25.2 million settlement for Ralph Birch and Shawn Henning, whose convictions were vacated after they served more than 30 years for a 1985 murder in New Milford. The General Assembly has the final say on the settlement, which arose from a lawsuit that Birch and Henning filed against the town and investigators including Dr. Henry Lee — former director of the Connecticut State Forensic Laboratory.

The state's Office of Chief Public Defender wrote in favor of the proposed bill and applying its new standards retroactively, noting that since 1989, there have been 36 exonerations in Connecticut, and the exonerees spent a total of 486 years in prison.

The Innocence Project, a national nonprofit that works to overturn wrongful convictions, supports the bill as well. Amanda Wallwin, a state policy advocate with the organization, submitted written testimony arguing exonerees "often miss out on critical economic benchmarks such as attending college, investing earnings, buying a home, creating retirement accounts, and contributing to Social Security" while in prison.

Wallwin's testimony advocated for removing the civil litigation bar and pointed out that another provision "allows the state to recover money if an exoneree wins an award or settlement from the entities that are actually responsible for the wrongful convictions." The Innocence Project also supports making the law applicable to pending claims, she wrote.

The judiciary committee is also considering shifting the makeup of the body that screens judicial nominees to include more lawyers, establishing a working group to review the state's civil procedure laws by January 2025, and increasing the per-page cost of court transcripts.

Lawmakers heard testimony from Shawna Wortz, who said she has worked as a court monitor for two years. Wortz described the financial hardship that comes from a low salary and said she must take private transcription jobs outside her 40-hour workweek in order to make ends meet.

Under current law, anyone who is not a public official must pay an official court reporter or court reporting monitor $3 per transcript page and $1.75 for any copies of each page. Senate Bill 360 boosts those figures by 20% to $3.60 and $2.10, respectively.

The existing statute sets lower rates for public officials at $2 per page and 75 cents for copies. The bill raises the rates to $2.40 and 90 cents, respectively.

"I cannot personally afford to rent a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment without having a roommate to split the cost," Wortz said. "An increase in the cost of transcript rates is unequivocally necessary."

Wortz said court monitors are "no longer allowed" to work on private jobs during their regular office hours, forcing them to use personal computers, printers, ink and paper at home, for which they are not reimbursed. Written testimony from the Connecticut judicial branch's external affairs division explained that the change came in April 2021 through collective bargaining, after multiple audit reports flagged the practice of using state time and resources on private work.

Judges order mandatory nonbillable transcripts at a significant pace, often on an expedited basis, meaning that the transcriber must work on them during office hours in order to receive any compensation, Wortz said. If a monitor takes a nonbillable project home in an effort to meet strict deadlines, which are often just a few days, they are not compensated for that time at all, she said.

Attorneys, she said, sometimes exploit a "loophole" by asking a judge to order a transcript, which has the effect of making the document free to counsel.

The bill addresses nonbillable work by requiring the judicial branch to pay the public official rates when a judge, judge trial referee or family support magistrate requests transcripts or other records from a reporter or monitor.

Rebecca Hernandez, a court monitor in Bridgeport, said rates have remained the same since before she entered the field 17 years ago.

Hernandez said she often leaves work, spends some time on family obligations, then turns her attention to writing more transcripts until the early hours of the morning. The distribution of free transcripts by judges, she said, is "offensive," but she and Wortz acknowledged that many judges do not seem to be aware that they are free.

The judicial branch's testimony raised "significant concerns" with the sections of the bill that raise its costs, arguing the proposal would circumvent the collective bargaining process, while the Office of Chief Public Defender asked lawmakers for $55,000 in additional funding if it becomes law.

--Editing by Janice Carter Brown.

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