Andrew Johnson watched a group of lawmakers discuss his future.
Wyoming exonerated Johnson in April after he spent nearly 24 years behind bars for a rape he didn’t commit. He was the first person ever set free in Wyoming based on DNA evidence following a conviction.
Wyoming law doesn’t currently have a provision to repay persons wrongfully accused. But it’s working on legislation to do so. Johnson is hoping he will be the first beneficiary of the legislation.
Wearing a new suit, he sat quietly as lawmakers vetted the bill.
He didn’t say a word. His face was emotionless. When discussion about the bill ended, he quickly walked out of the room.
The House Judiciary Committee discussed Senate File 30 on Thursday. The bill passed the Senate last week and is now stirring debate in the House about the fiduciary responsibility of Wyoming if it wrongly imprisons someone.
$500,000 in compensation
Wyoming would join 29 other states that opt to repay exonerated people. The bill offers up to $500,000 in compensation for time the wrongfully imprisoned will never get back. The Legislature worked on a similar bill in 2008, but it failed to pass both chambers in the Capitol.
Just as a Cheyenne prosecutor dropped Johnson’s retrial in July, the Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee brought the bill back to life in hopes of seeing it pass during the current budget session.
In the draft bill’s language, Wyoming would meet the federal standard by paying $50,000 a year for 10 years.
For Johnson, that equates to $21,739 for every full year in jail.
Johnson, surrounded by two lawyers who’ve worked his case pro bono, expressed few opinions about the legislation.
“It’s a good bill,” he said.
As he rushed down the steps of the Capitol, he said he was in a hurry.
“I have to go to work,” he said.
If it passes three more votes the bill will land on Gov. Matt Mead’s desk.
At others’ mercy
When Johnson reentered society, the 63-year-old was at the financial mercy of his family. He stayed at his sister’s house and hitched rides with other relatives to doctor appointments and the unemployment office.
There were technology gaps. He’d never used the Internet or a cellphone. Jobs were hard to find.
Johnson worked for a construction company that paid well before he landed in jail in 1989. He had a wife, a house and a car.
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All that disappeared after a woman accused him of rape following a night of drinking.
Exoneration compensation is a tool states use to avoid court battles. If Johnson wanted to take the risk, he could file a civil suit and potentially receive more money. But by doing so, he would forgo any right to the compensation.
Lawmakers were troubled by the $50,000-per-year annual payment. They preferred the idea of giving someone a lump sum.
One of Johnson’s attorneys, Tom Long, said providing an annual payment will help keep his assets from being sold, discounted or used as a security for loans.
“We want it to be there for him,” he said.
The state should not restrict how someone uses compensation for someone it wrongly incarcerated, said Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie.
Andrew Johnson was wronged and now he’s a free man, said Rep. David Miller, R-Riverton. People should have the option to do what they want with the money, he said.
“If he wants to go blow it all at once on a roulette table, so be it,” he said.
Miller said he would propose an amendment during debate on the House floor to provide exonerated parties the choice to choose annual payments or a lump sum.
If the Legislature passes the bill, Wyoming’s exoneration compensation pay scale will be below the national average, but not at the bottom of the barrel.
New York and Texas have no caps. North Carolina provides $50,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration with a maximum of $750,000.
Massachusetts has a maximum of $500,000. Maine has a maximum of $300,000. Wisconsin provides $5,000 for each year in prison with a maximum of $25,000 plus attorney’s fees. Oklahoma provides $175,000 for the entirety of the wrongful incarceration.
The bill passed by a unanimous vote in the committee, but it’s not clear that it will sail through the House.
Speaker of the House Tom Lubnau appeared in the committee meeting to propose an amendment that would put Johnson’s compensation in jeopardy even if the bill passes.
The amendment would tailor the law so an acquittal in a retrial based on DNA evidence would not guarantee someone like Johnson would receive the money.
An acquittal doesn’t prove actual innocence, Lubnau said.
“There may be a time where 20 years later there is not enough evidence to prosecute, but that doesn’t mean the person is necessarily innocent of the crime,” Lubnau said. “If we’re going to pay money out of the coffers of the state of Wyoming, there should be a burden on the defendant to prove actual innocence.”
If he wants compensation, the amendment would force Johnson to go back to court to prove his innocence again.
It seems like the state’s attempt to dodge responsibility, said Aaron Lyttle, the other attorney working for Johnson.
“If you’re acquitted or there’s insufficient evidence to convict you, then you shouldn’t have been in prison in the first place,” he said. “That means you’ve spent possibly decades in prison. DNA evidence wasn’t available in the 1980s and now that it is available it isn’t fair to force them to go on trial again. It’s just another burden on people.”