Why Should a Person Wrongly Convicted Be Required To Sue For Compensation?

The Supreme Court has reversed a $14 million jury verdict in favor of John Thompson who served 18 years in prison (14 of them on death row) for crimes that he did not commit. The verdict was based upon prosecutorial misconduct, and indeed, the prosecution admitted that it had failed to turn over exculpatory evidence in violation of the applicable law and the duty imposed upon prosecutors. Because of the narrow window for compensation in such matters, Mr. Thompson was compelled to allege and prove that the prosecutor had failed to properly train his assistants. The Supreme Court, in essence, concluded that the claim could not survive because one violation of the duty to turn-over exculpatory evidence did not meet the standard necessary to establish a failure to train. Thus Mr. Thompson was left without compensation for his 18 years in prison primarily caused by the prosecutor's misconduct. The dissent argued that the standard had been met and cited the repeated failures and repeated misconduct of the office.

But I look at this case and ask: why should a person who has been wrongly convicted, declared innocent, acquitted and exonerated have to prove anything? Shouldn't that be enough to entitle the person to compensation? Why should Mr. Thompson have to prove not only that he was imprisoned for 18 years largely due to the misconduct of the prosecutor, but that somehow that misconduct was the result of some failure to teach the assistants in that office what the law requires! Compensation should be granted automatically in such circumstances by law.

Imagine the horrors of prison life and then add to it the knowledge that you are confined although innocent -- away from your family your friends, your job -- and your compensation when (and if) freed is dependent on being able to prove a lack of training in the prosecutor's office. Every state should have mandatory compensation in all such cases. Some do, but the amount or formula in those that do (including the federal government) is almost laughable when considering what has been done to and experienced by those who have been wrongly convicted and incarcerated.

I have no idea what the proper formula or compensation should be for an innocent person spending a day, a week, a month or a year or years in prison -- but whatever it is, it cannot be enough. We regularly compensate people without suit in so many other instances, how can this horrific injury not be compensated? When a person steps out of prison after being exonerated for a crime that he did not commit, a representative of the state should be at the gate waiting with a check to present to him, rather than make him jump through some unnecessary and difficult legal hoop. If how we treat our prisoners is the measure of a nation, then certainly how we treat those wrongfully imprisoned can be no less of a measure.

Note: In an Op-Ed in Sunday's New York Times Mr. Thompson discusses the failure to punish prosecutors for their misconduct -- a topic for another day.