By CHRISTOPHER LEONARD
Associated Press Writer
ST. LOUIS (AP) -- When Antonio Beaver was freed from prison by DNA evidence, he was overwhelmed by supporters eager to help him return to normal life after spending nearly 11 years behind bars.
After his release in March, some promised jobs. Others set up a charitable fund in his name. Relatives offered assistance, too. But six months later, Beaver was quick to list the number of people he could still count on: One.
"You got to fend for yourself," said Beaver, who was wrongly imprisoned in 1997 for a violent carjacking. "Everybody's making promises: 'We're going to do this and do that.' Ain't nobody done nothing yet. I got to deal with it, man. It's just the way our society is."
Beaver is more fortunate than many inmates because Missouri compensates exonerated prisoners. DNA cases such as his have led many other states to consider policies that would offer such inmates tens of thousands of dollars for the time they were locked up.
"In the vast majority of these cases, the DNA analysis has left absolutely no doubt that the person was innocent. So people have begun applying for automatic compensation, which is really not adequate," said Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law.
Most states offer no automatic compensation to exonerated inmates. Of the 22 states that do, the amount of financial assistance varies greatly.
In states without compensation programs, some inmates sue and are awarded millions of dollars. Others have no grounds for a lawsuit and get nothing.
Inmates like Beaver accept whatever the state deems appropriate - in his case, $50 for each day spent in prison. He will receive more than $181,000 from the state, paid in annual installments of about $36,500.
Earlier this year, inmate advocates made a largely unsuccessful push in 13 states to update or expand compensation programs, according to The Innocence Project, which represents inmates fighting to have their convictions overturned.
Vermont was the only one to create a new compensation program, agreeing to pay inmates at least $60,000 a year, with no maximum. In Texas, lawmakers doubled compensation payments from $25,000 to $50,000 for each year served. New Hampshire pays no more than $20,000, regardless of the length of time spent in prison.
The federal prison system has one of the most generous compensation policies, paying up to $50,000 a year to exonerated inmates and $100,000 for those on death row.
Warden said compensation programs are spotty because exonerations were rare in the past - just 1,300 in U.S. history.
But genetic testing has made them more common. By late August, 207 prisoners were exonerated by DNA, according to the Innocence Project. More than half of those exonerations happened in the last six years.
Many cases were similar to Beaver's in Missouri. His conviction was based largely on the victim's testimony that he resembled the assailant. There were blood samples in the car from the attacker, but they were too small to be tested at the time.
Beaver lobbied for years to have the samples tested. A judge finally allowed the test, which proved his innocence in March.
By July, Beaver was getting to know the son he had been separated from for more than a decade. He was hired briefly at a laundry service, but said he was fired after a disagreement over sick time.
The state compensation check has helped, he said, but it isn't enough to help him get back on his feet.
"They should have said: 'Here's a job working for the city,'" he said.
If there is no compensation law, inmates often find it difficult to sue the state, said Jenny Greenberg, director of the Innocence Project in Florida. Inmates often must prove that authorities purposely put them behind bars on false pretenses, she said.
If lawsuits go through, the payout can be huge. Illinois inmate James Newsome, who was freed in 1994, was awarded $15 million in federal court in 2001.
Just as taxpayers receive the benefits of the justice system, "we need to assume some of the burden when that system errs," said Utah state Rep. David Litvack, a Democrat who unsuccessfully sought passage for a compensation bill this year.
In Florida, a proposed compensation law has failed three years in a row as lawmakers battle over a "clean hands" provision that would bar compensating anyone with prior convictions.
"You always want to compensate someone who is convicted incorrectly, but I don't think the public would approve of us compensating people who were wrongfully convicted of one crime but had a rap sheet that is nine pages long," said Florida's Republican House Whip Ellyn Bogdanoff.
Greenberg, with the Innocence Project, said she has opposed "clean hands" provisions because they would prevent many exonerated inmates from being paid.
"Almost every one of our guys has a prior conviction - that's why they have pictures to wrongly identify them," Greenberg said.
On the Net:
The Innocence Project: http://www.innocenceproject.org/
Center on Wrongful Convictions: http://www.law.northwestern.edu/wrongfulconvictions/
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