Wrongful incarceration: Bills would revive exonerees’ rejected compensation claims

He didn't do it. Exoneree Clemente Aguirre-Jarquin was wrongfully imprisoned for 14 years but was disqualified from compensation on a technicality. Photo courtesy of Innocence Project of Florida.

People imprisoned in Florida for years for crimes they did not commit are due state compensation, but state law denies it to most of them. Legislators outraged about that are advancing bills to help exonerees claim as much as $50,000 for each year spent behind bars.

Sen. Rob Bradley’s bill (SB 346) would extend the deadline for filing compensation claims from 90 days to two years, and would apply retroactively to claims that were denied or were left unfiled.

It would remove the “clean hands” provision that disqualifies exonerees from compensation if they committed earlier felonies.

Bradley’s bill passed the full Senate last week. A House bill (HB 259) proposed by Broward County Democrat Rep. Bobby DuBose, similarly revises qualifications for compensation. It has passed its required committee reviews and is awaiting a vote in the full House.

These 20 former inmates were exonerated by DNA evidence that proved their innocence. Frank Lee Smith, the black man in glasses, died in prison. Since 1989, 72 people have been exonerated in Florida and released after being wrongfully imprisoned for, collectively, hundreds of years. Source: Innocence Project of Florida

“This is a big, big day for many of us who have been passionate about criminal justice reform issues,” said Bradley, a Northeast Florida Republican who chairs the Appropriations Committee, as his bill faced its final Senate vote. “This is another big, important step as we continue walking down that road towards justice and more proportionality in our criminal justice system.”

Thirty people have been exonerated and released from prison in Florida since 2008, when the Legislature approved the Victims of Wrongful Incarceration Compensation Act. Two have received compensation, according to the Senate bill analysis. There have been 72 exonerations since 1989, according to the Innocence Project of Florida, including for 29 people who were wrongfully imprisoned on Death Row.

The extended filing deadline would help Clemente Aguirre-Jarquin, a Honduran immigrant imprisoned on Death Row for 11 years. According to claims legislation filed on his behalf, the Florida Supreme Court in 2016 threw out his conviction and ordered a new trial.

Seminole County State Attorney Phil Archer, now president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, kept him locked up for another two years awaiting the second trial but, as a jury was being seated, Archer dismissed the charges. Aguirre-Jarquin was released in 2018, having been incarcerated continuously for 5,255 days, and filed a compensation claim within 90 days.

A court ruled him ineligible, saying he should have filed within 90 days of the 2016 Supreme Court ruling, even though he was still in prison and facing retrial. Orlando-area Democrats Rep. Anna Eskamani and Sen. Victor Torres are sponsoring relief bills (HB 6253 and SB 24) to pay his claim anyway, but no committee has scheduled them for hearings.

Likewise, Scotty Bartek, wrongfully convicted of sexual battery on a child, might qualify for compensation if Bradley’s bill becomes law. According to relief legislation filed on his behalf, Bartek was wrongfully imprisoned for 22 years. As with Aguirre-Jarquin, a court threw out the conviction in 2013 and ordered a new trial. Prosecutors kept him behind bars for another year, until they dismissed the charges. Bartek filed a timely claim but was disqualified by a prior conviction on a non-violent drug felony.

State law changed in 2017 to exclude non-violent felonies as a disqualifier but, for Bartek, it was too late. Although he would have qualified for compensation under the 2017 law, the 90-day deadline to file a claim had long expired. Sen. Dennis Baxley, representing Sumter, Lake and Marion counties, and Rep. Charlie Stone, representing Levy and Marion counties, both Republicans, introduced relief bills for Bartek (SB 2 and HB 6515) but no action has been taken on them.

Clifford Williams, imprisoned for 43 years on a wrongful murder conviction, was disqualified for compensation under the “clean hands” provisions. Jacksonville Democrats Sen. Audrey Gibson and Rep. Kimberly Daniels are sponsoring relief legislation that would award Williams $2.15 million notwithstanding his two earlier felonies. Both bills advanced in their chambers last week, with strong support from Bradley.

Williams’ nephew, Nathan Myers, was wrongfully convicted of the same murder as a teen-ager and was exonerated at the same time as Williams. Myers was deemed eligible for compensation but Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office blocked it, saying the evidence of his innocence was not convincing.

Moody’s office reversed itself Feb. 15, saying Assistant Deputy of Criminal Appeals Carolyn Snurkowski in the Department of Legal Affairs (DLA) had overstepped the office’s authority.

“The DLA cannot second-guess decisions made by courts,” the A.G.’s general counsel, Richard Martin, wrote on Feb. 15. ”The DLA will inform the chief financial officer [who pays such claims as annuities] that the application meets the requirements of the statute and is complete.”

Williams and Myers maintained throughout their ordeals that they were innocent and  kept fighting to prove it. Their convictions were thrown out following scrutiny by the conviction integrity review unit established by 4th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Melissa Nelson. Hers was the first such conviction review unit in the state of Florida.