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Ga. weighs compensation for wrongfully convicted

Of his time in Georgia’s prisons, Lathan Word holds no grudge. But he can’t stop thinking about it, either.

And it haunts his prayers. Word’s father died in 2006; his grandfather passed away eight days before the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed his conviction in 2011.

“I never got to see them again on free ground,” Word, now 31, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’m always thinking about it.”

Georgia is among almost two dozen states without a formula to decide how much wrongly convicted inmates, freed after years of incarceration, can be compensated.

What happened to Word — the latest in a string of wrongly convicted men paid hundred of thousands of dollars by the state — may change that. There are few rules now for how Georgia handles wrongful convictions, and no guidelines for how much money may be paid as restitution to those cleared of crimes they did not commit.

A new protocol could limit lawsuits. In a way, it would also acknowledge what everybody unfortunately already knows: Mistakes happen.

“Those that are wrongly convicted and later exonerated in Georgia should have a uniform system in which to seek recourse,” Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp said.

The state Legislature agreed last month to give $400,000 to Word, who was exonerated after spending 11 years and nine months behind bars for a 1999 armed robbery. Legislators came to that amount because it was what he could have earned in the U.S. Marine Corps had he reported to basic training as planned before his arrest. At the time, he was 18 years old.

The award was not recommended by the state’s official claims advisory board, which vets initial requests for restitution or compensation. In fact, the board denied Word’s initial claim, saying he failed to provide documentation to justify the amount of money he was requesting.

At least three wrongly convicted men in Georgia have received $1 million or more in recent years as restitution, although a quick look at other states shows the disparity of how Word may have been treated.

If this were Texas, for example, Word would be entitled to receive more than $800,000 under the Lone Star State’s compensation law.

State Rep. Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus, tried for two years to get compensation for Word. She initially sought $2 million. “I thought that was reasonable, considering all he went through,” Hugley said.

But Hugley said she was told to come up with an amount that lawmakers would find more reasonable. Now, she would like to see Georgia adopt a formula for compensating exonerees.

“It would be the right thing for us to do,” she said. “The state needs to have a more predictable process, instead of one determined by politics.”

It is a bipartisan concern. State Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, won his chamber’s approval this year to form a study committee to look at what he calls “expungement reform” — including the compensation issue. He expects it to make recommendations by next year’s legislative session.

A lawyer by trade, McKoon has represented clients trying to expunge criminal records. It is a hard process to navigate, he said, even before financial awards may be considered.

Word said it took him several attempts over 13 months to get his record expunged. Even then, he had to pay $50 in fees to get his record wiped clean. “That was like a slap in the face,” he said.

Among McKoon’s concerns is having no set formula to decide how much money someone should get. “Is it just because a case gets enough attention?” McKoon asked. “Wouldn’t all of us be better served having some sort of rule or system in place to make that kind of decision?”

In recent years, the Georgia Innocence Project has helped free a number of wrongly convicted inmates through the use of DNA evidence and then helped them secure restitution.

The project’s executive director, Aimee Maxwell, welcomed efforts to set a new formula for deciding how to compensate wrongfully convicted inmates. She expressed concern, however, as to what threshold the state would require inmates to clear in order to receive restitution.

Some states, Maxwell said, raised the bar so high it is almost impossible for anyone to qualify. She also said Georgia should follow steps taken by some states to include job training and education as part of its compensation package for exonerees.

“It’s not just money that they need. They need a support system,” Maxwell said. But, she added, “these things don’t happen because everyone’s doing something wrong. Errors just happen.”

Without firm rules, those exonerated of crimes could also sue. In past years, Maxwell said, her office has successfully persuaded lawmakers to compensate a number of inmates who were exonerated after DNA tests showed they did not commit rapes for which they were convicted.

“The state does not want to face a lawsuit,” she said. “These can be very sympathetic plaintiffs to juries.”

Word was convicted of robbing Jennie & Joe’s Curb Market in Columbus. A single witness, store clerk Contresstis Tolbert, testified that he saw Word enter with a gun and a plastic bag over his head and leave with $300.

Word’s conviction was overturned on appeal in 2011, but prosecutors sought to retry him. During the new trial, Tolbert, who is now serving a life sentence for murder and armed robbery, told prosecutors he was lying when he initially pointed blame at Word and wasn’t going to lie about it anymore.

That same day, June 20, 2011, Word walked out of the Muscogee County jail a free man.

“I never had a hard feeling since Day One,” Word said. “You have to live for what’s now, not what was.”

Word’s life now appears as quiet as he is softspoken. He does sanitation work in a poultry plant in the small Alabama city of Daleville, population 5,300. He’s working on a book, “One False Move,” that he started while in prison. His joy at being free includes being able to see his grandmother, who stuck by him the entire time — she is 76 years old and lives about 50 miles away in Andalusia, Ala.

It is not clear when he will see the money approved by the Legislature.

The $400,000 — which will be put into a 20-year annuity — was not included in the state’s new budget, which begins July 1. Instead, Word must wait for lawmakers to follow up on a promise to put it into a midyear budget they will adopt early next year.

“It can never repay that,” Word said of his lost time. “I wasn’t looking for them to reimburse me for 11 years and 9 months. I’m just thankful the state had enough concern to try and help me get back on my feet.”

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