Virginia Commonwealth University

Make it real.

Virginia Makes Amends for Wrongful Imprisonment

May 15, 2012

By Michael Bodine
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Thomas Haynesworth spent 27 years in prison on three felony charges before DNA testing proved he was innocent. He was exonerated last December, and the General Assembly compensated Haynesworth this spring for his wrongful incarceration.

Senate Bill 41, introduced by Sen. Henry Marsh III, D-Richmond, provides more than a $1 million in relief to Haynesworth. Is that sufficient compensation for an innocent man locked up for nearly three decades?

On April 4, Gov. Bob McDonnell signed SB 41, awarding Haynesworth $1,075,178 for his wrongful imprisonment.

“Now, as Mr. Haynesworth begins the next chapter in his life, it is morally right for Virginia to provide him with a means to financial security and the ability to move on with his future,” McDonnell stated.

“This restitution will help ensure that Mr. Haynesworth is able to build upon his freedom and return to society in a successful way.”

Virginia is one of more than two dozen states that have laws addressing compensation for wrongfully incarcerated individuals.

Formula Outlined in Virginia Law

In 2004, the General Assembly of Virginia passed legislation stating that a wrongfully convicted individual is entitled to the following compensation:

  • 90 percent of the state’s per capita personal income for every year spent incarcerated, up to 20 years.
  • An initial lump sum equal to 20 percent of the individual’s awarded compensation. The other 80 percent is to be used by the state treasurer to purchase a 25-year annuity.
  • A transition assistance grant of $15,000 taken from the funds stated above. On top of that grant, the exonerated individual is eligible for up to $10,000 for tuition in the Virginia community college system.

The Innocence Project is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted prisoners through DNA testing. Nationwide, such testing has exonerated 289 individuals. The Innocence Project has played a substantial role in these cases.

DNA testing has exonerated 14 men in Virginia. All but two of them have been compensated.

Eight of Virginia’s 14 exonerations occurred before the state adopted its 2004 compensation law.

Among the exonerated, four men had been sentenced to life in prison, nine had sentences of 20-50 years, and one was serving a death sentence.

Robert Hall was the post-conviction counsel for Earl Washington, the only Virginian to have been exonerated after serving time on death row. Washington was exonerated in 2000 and subsequently was provided relief through Virginia courts rather than through legislation.

“A number of exonerations are frequently in non-capital cases, [such as] exonerations in rape cases, where DNA revealed that the guy in prison was not the assailant,” Hall said. “Based on the number of these exonerations, the Legislature decided it needed to do something.”

The 2004 compensation statute was amended in 2010, to adjust the formula for inflation.

How Does Haynesworth’s Compensation Compare?

SB 41 provides Haynesworth, 46, with more compensation than the law requires.

The per capita personal income in Virginia was $45,920 in 2011, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. If Haynesworth received 90 percent of that average income for the maximum of 20 years, his compensation would have amounted to about $800,000 before the transition assistance grant.

Marsh’s bill originally proposed that amount. It was amended several times to reach the final sum of $1,075,178.

Haynesworth’s compensation amounts to nearly $54,000 per year up to the 20-year limit set by Virginia law. When Haynesworth’s appropriation is divided by 27 years – the actual duration of his incarceration – it works out to $39,800 per year of imprisonment. That is about $1,500 less than 90 percent of the per capita personal income in Virginia.

Rebecca Brown is the senior policy advocate for state affairs for the Innocence Project. She said the project finds Haynesworth’s compensation suitable.

“We recommend a minimum of $50,000 per year plus social services, medical care, mental health care, educational assistance, immediate subsistence, etc.,” Brown said. “Only about half of the DNA exonerees we have tracked have received any sort of compensation.”

Haynesworth’s compensation includes a payment of $100,910 to the Virginia Retirement System. This will provide him with an income stream of $1,516 once he reaches age 60 or starts receiving a retirement allowance from the VRS.

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli helped Marsh and Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, incorporate that provision into the bill. McEachin co-sponsored SB 41.

Steve Northup is a lawyer in Richmond and the executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. He believes Haynesworth deserves more for his wrongful imprisonment.

“The problem is that Virginia’s current system does not offer them fair compensation,” Northup said. “Haynesworth did not get anywhere near the amount of money I think he should have gotten for having been wrongfully incarcerated for 27 years.”

Haynesworth says he cannot truly be compensated for his decades in prison. But he is glad that others may learn from his ordeal.

“No amount of money can bring back the 27 years,” Haynesworth told Richmond television station CBS 6. “Sometimes your situation has to be a stepping-stone for somebody else. I’m not bitter about the situation. I’m just happy with where I am in my life.”

This article was published by such CNS clients as Emporia News.

###

Virginia Inmates Who’ve Been Exonerated

Name

Conviction

Exoneration

Compensation?

Marvin Anderson

1982

2002

Yes

Victor Burnette

1979

2009

Yes

Calvin Wayne Cunningham

1981

2011

Not Yet

Willie Davidson

1981

2005

Yes

Thomas Haynesworth

1984

2011

Just approved

Edward Honaker

1985

1994

Yes

Curtis Jasper Moore

1978

2008

No (Moore has died.)

Julius Ruffin

1982

2003

Yes

Walter Snyder

1986

1993

Yes

Phillip Leon Thurman

1985

2005

Yes

David Vasquez

1985

1989

Yes

Earl Washington

1984

2000

Yes

Troy Webb

1989

1996

Yes

Arthur Lee Whitfield

1982

2004

Yes

 Source: The Innocence Project

On the Web

More information on the exoneration cases in Virginia and other states can be found on the Innocence Project’s website at www.innocenceproject.org.

The Virginia law outlining the compensation for people who’ve been wrongfully convicted and incarcerated is at http://tinyurl.com/chap557.

To read more about Senate Bill 41, visit the Richmond Sunlight website at www.richmondsunlight.com/bill/2012/sb41

Related story:

States’ Compensation Laws Are All Over the Map