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Georgia bill would streamline payment of wrongful convictions

FILE - Dennis Perry, center, standing next to his wife Brenda Perry gets emotional as he thanks the Georgia Innocence Project team after working to secure his release after 20 years behind bars, Thursday, July 23, 2020, in Nicholls, Ga. Perry was granted bail Thursday after his conviction for the 1985 murder of a couple at a church in southern Georgia was overturned.  An effort is underway within the Georgia General Assembly to streamline and improve the process for those wrongfully convicted to seek compensation from the state.  (Stephen B. Morton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

FILE – Dennis Perry, center, standing next to his wife Brenda Perry gets emotional as he thanks the Georgia Innocence Project team after working to secure his release after 20 years behind bars, Thursday, July 23, 2020, in Nicholls, Ga. Perry was granted bail Thursday after his conviction for the 1985 murder of a couple at a church in southern Georgia was overturned. An effort is underway within the Georgia General Assembly to streamline and improve the process for those wrongfully convicted to seek compensation from the state. (Stephen B. Morton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

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A grieving mother charged with murder a day after the death of her newborn baby. A man convicted of rape after a co-defendant falsely implicated him. And a man convicted of a double murder despite an alibi and no physical evidence linking him to the crime.

Lawyers for each told state lawmakers during a Thursday hearing at the Georgia Capitol that they were wrongfully convicted and should be compensated by the state. It was just one step in a process that critics say is difficult to navigate, too subjective and inconsistent.

But an effort is underway to streamline and improve the process by creating a specialized review board for such claims and providing clear criteria for reviewing and awarding compensation.

Currently, a legislator must sponsor a resolution for a person’s claim for compensation for wrongful conviction. This claim is presented to the State Claims Advisory Board, which is chaired by the Secretary of State and includes commissioners from the Departments of Human Services, Corrections, and Transportation. The board determines whether the state agency named in the complaint — usually the Department of Corrections — is guilty, not whether the conviction was improper.

The council then makes a recommendation to the General Assembly, where lawmakers decide whether the person deserves compensation and, if so, how much. The process involves multiple committee hearings and a full-house vote in both the House and Senate to pass what is essentially a law tailored to the individual individual seeking compensation.

Lawmakers have many important issues to consider during each year’s 40-day session, which means even really compelling compensation cases can fall through the cracks, said Hayden Davis of the Georgia Innocence Project, who is pushing for the review board bill.

“It’s much more efficient to have a panel of experts who are really well equipped to understand the complexity of these cases, make solid judgments, and get them off the plate in the legislature,” Davis said.

The pending legislation, HB 1354, would create a five-person panel: a judge who presides over criminal criminal cases; a prosecutor; a criminal defense attorney; and two individuals who specialize in wrongful convictions, who may be a lawyer, forensic scientist, or law professor.

The bipartisan bill provides specific criteria for eligibility for compensation, including proving innocence by a preponderance of the evidence, meaning it is more likely than not.

If the person is found eligible, the panel would determine a compensation amount between $50,000 and $100,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment, as well as certain legal fees.

The review committee’s recommendation would be sent to the Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court, and the amount would be paid out of the judiciary’s budget.

Georgia is one of 13 states that currently does not have a wrongful conviction compensation law, according to attorneys. People who spend years behind bars due to wrongful convictions are deprived of time with friends and family, as well as opportunities for job training and advancement, said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, Democrat of Atlanta and sponsor of the pending bill. They also waste years earning and saving money and frequently suffer negative health effects, he said.

“All of those things have to be taken into account,” he said. “We can never really compensate someone for these horrible mistakes, but we have to do something.”

Ashley Jordan – known at the time by her married name, Ashley Debelbot – was 24 in 2008 when she gave birth to a baby girl, McKenzy. The baby died within days and his parents were almost immediately charged with murder. They spent 12 years in custody before the Georgia Supreme Court overturned their convictions in 2020.

The couple’s lawyers presented complicated medical evidence which they said showed the baby had a stroke in utero and suffered other injuries during childbirth. A new district attorney reviewed the evidence and asked a judge to dismiss the case last year.

“At 24, she lost what most would consider everything,” State Representative Carolyn Hugley said of Jordan at Thursday’s hearing as she argued for compensation. “She lost her first and only child, she lost her freedom and as a result of the 12 years of incarceration, the marriage did not survive.

Albert Debelbot, the baby’s father, also filed for compensation, but not in time to be considered by lawmakers this year.

One of the three men who committed a brutal rape in 1993 implicated Kerry Robinson as one of the others involved. Robinson served more than 17 years of a 20-year sentence before DNA evidence retested with modern technology proved the DNA analysis presented at his trial was inaccurate.

“Mr. Robinson has suffered. The system has failed,” Holcomb told fellow lawmakers Thursday.

Dennis Perry has been convicted of murder nearly two decades after the 1985 murder of a couple inside a church. He had spent more than 20 years behind bars when a judge dismissed the case against him after DNA evidence pointed to another suspect.

Philip Green, a lawyer for Perry, told lawmakers his client deserved compensation because misconduct by prosecutors and investigators resulted in “a terrible miscarriage of justice which completely destroyed a man’s life.”

The House subcommittee approved compensation of $60,000 for each year of imprisonment in each of these three cases. But several committee hearings and votes remain before final approval.