Criminal Law

Military Wife Sues State for Wrongful Prison Term

On TV, in book and movies - and sometimes real life, the first person the police suspect in a man or woman's suspicious death is the spouse. Some statistics support this claim, but the evidence should speak for itself. A few years ago, Cynthia Sommers was accused of poisoning her Marine husband and spent 876 days in prison after being found guilty.

She spent over two years in prison before the prosecution admitted that it had overlooked evidence that would have cleared her of the charges. It didn't help that the prosecutor maligned Mrs. Sommer's character saying she was going to use the $250,000 life insurance policy left to her for "personal improvement" and partying.

The US criminal justice system isn't perfect.  Unfortunately, sometimes criminals go free, and that's never good. Even worse than that, though, is the sad fact that sometimes innocent people get convicted and go to prison. However, with technological advances in DNA testing and other criminal investigative procedures, and the increased collection and storage of DNA material and other evidence, innocent people who were convicted and sent to jail are getting exonerated and released. You hear and read about quite a bit lately.

But, once released, how does someone get her life back? After years in prison, she may have no money, no home, no job and no real prospects of finding any of those things any time soon. It may seem bleak, but if you or someone you know is in this position, you should know that wrongful conviction compensation is available to help you get back on your feet.

Compensation Laws

A federal law gives people who were wrongfully convicted of a federal crime the right to receive money. Under this law, you're entitled to $50,000 for each year you spent in prison. If you were sentenced to death, you're entitled to $100,000 for each year you spent on death row.

When it comes to state wrongful conviction compensation (if you were convicted in state court and spent time in a state prison), individual states have many different types of laws. For example, some states:

  • Follow the federal model and give a pre-set dollar amount for each year you spent in prison
  • Base the dollar amounts on ranges of years. For instance, such a law may allow for a payment of $80,000 if you were imprisoned for 5 years or less; $160,000 if you were imprisoned for 5 to 14 years, and; $195,000 if you were imprisoned for more than 14 years
  • Multiply the number of years you pent in jail by the average annual wage or salary in the state

You should check the laws in your state to see how the compensation, if any, is calculated.

No Statute?

Not all states have laws that allow for wrongful conviction compensation. That doesn't mean, however, that you can't get some money. When the state doesn't have a compensation statute, you may want to:

  • Ask for help from the lawmakers in your state, such as state representatives, state senators and even the governor. Through what's called a private bill or private compensation bill. This is a special law that, if passed, that entitles you to some compensation. The lawmakers will decide how much you'll get paid
  • File a lawsuit against the state and the prosecutor for money damages. You'll have to prove that your civil rights were violated by the wrongful conviction and prison sentence. These types of lawsuits aren't easy to win, however. That's because the prosecutor and the state have sovereign, or governmental immunity, from such lawsuit
  • That means you normally can't sue them for actions they do while performing their jobs. To win the case, you'll have  to  prove that  there was no just cause for your arrest, or that you were cruelly or maliciously prosecuted -  the prosecutor had some "axe to grind" against you or took you to trial even though he knew you were innocent

Ms. Sommers can now return to her "normal" life, drinking Starbucks and seeing her four children, but two years of prison will rob her of that time with her children and possibly her reputation. Those are unrecoverable.

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