Will Oklahoma lawmakers boost compensation for exonerees?

The cost of innocence

By G.W. Schulz

Efforts are continuing in Oklahoma by advocates to raise the compensation given to people who serve years or decades in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Under current Oklahoma law, a person must be pardoned by the governor or formally declared innocent by a judge in order to be eligible for any payouts to the wrongfully convicted. No matter how many years a person has served in prison, they are only granted a small, lump sum.

The state’s Governmental Tort Claims Act gives compensation to individuals who were set free on the “basis of actual innocence of the crime for which the claimant was sentenced.” In order to receive a payout, there can be no pending proceedings in the case. The individual must also have been imprisoned solely on the basis of the wrongful conviction. And, a judge must have “issued an order vacating, dismissing, or reversing the conviction and sentence and providing that no further proceedings can be or will be held against the individual.” 

Achieving innocence in Oklahoma once a conviction has occurred is arduous. When the wrongfully convicted do manage to prove their innocence, exonerees are only eligible for a total of $175,000.

What does ‘innocent’ mean? 

A person can be defined as “exonerated” by the National Registry of Exonerations without having been declared “innocent” by a judge in Oklahoma. The judge could merely decide that your initial trial was unfair and vacate your conviction. This judge’s reasoning could be, for example, that key evidence was withheld from you prior to your trial. Then a judge could go one step further and dismiss your case with prejudice, meaning you cannot be tried for the crime again by prosecutors. But you still have not been declared innocent at that moment without a new request to the judge. 

Norwood.Law client Glynn Simmons in 2023 was found innocent of murder after spending 48 years in Oklahoma’s prison system. Prosecutors in Oklahoma City had no physical evidence connecting Simmons to a deadly 1974 robbery and murder. They relied instead on a single eyewitness – a store customer – who admitted to only glimpsing at the perpetrators for a few seconds. The customer had also been shot in the head during the robbery and survived. 

By the time Simmons was released, 14 people had come forward giving sworn testimony that he had been in his hometown of Harvey, Louisiana, during the holidays of 1974 and couldn’t have committed the robbery. 

Despite all of this, Simmons under state law will only be eligible for the same $175,000 as any other exoneree despite his nearly half century behind bars. House Democratic Leader Cyndi Munson (Oklahoma City) from the Oklahoma Legislature filed House Bill 2773 in 2023 hoping to change all that. The law would grant $50,000 to people like Simmons for every year they were locked up. Inmates would get an extra $50,000 for any time spent on death row.

Said Munson in a 2023 press release:

“When a factually innocent person is released from incarceration, it is our responsibility to adequately care for the individual who has been stripped of the opportunity to live a full life and the opportunity to care for themselves and their families. … Both Texas and Kansas provide better compensation for the wrongfully convicted. Since our states have many similarities, it made sense to model our wrongful-conviction compensation amounts after the states that have successfully accomplished this much needed change.”   

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