Two decades ago, Kerry Robinson was convicted of a 1993 rape in Moultrie after he was falsely implicated by one of the actual perpetrators and a state forensic analyst. Robinson, 46, spent nearly the next 18 years of his life in a Georgia prison until he was exonerated with DNA evidence in 2020.
Robinson is one of three Georgians currently looking compensation for a wrongful conviction through an ad hoc legislative process that critics have long called inefficient and inconsistent.
A bipartisan bill in the Georgia House of Representatives seeks to create a wrongful conviction compensation law and establish a formal process. The law project advanced through the House Non-Civil Judiciary Committee earlier this week and is set to vote before Crossover Day on Tuesday, the last day of the General Assembly session, to move the new legislation forward without legislative maneuvering additional.
“The idea behind Bill 1354 is to set out in law policy, procedures and standards for compensating those wrongfully convicted,” said Atlanta Democratic State Rep. Scott Holcomb, a former prosecutor who sponsors the bill.
State Representative Chuck Efstration, a Dacula Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is cosponsoring the legislation with Holcomb and two other representatives.
“(The bill) provides a clearer process for claimants seeking compensation and will further streamline the legislative review process,” Efstration said.
If the bill passes the House before Tuesday, it will be returned to the Senate for consideration.
Georgia is one of 12 states that does not have a law in place to compensate wrongfully convicted persons, according to the Georgia Innocence Projecta non-profit organization that helped write the policy.
“This is an issue that everyone should be able to support,” said Clare Gilbert, the organization’s executive director. “To bring justice to the people who went through this terrible thing and give them back some dignity and the ability to rebuild their lives, even though no amount of money can ever make up for what they went through.”
Georgia’s compensation process has long been a problem
Compensation for exonerated persons was reported as a problem in previous legislative sessions without successful reforms. Since 1991, Georgia has paid $7.9 million to 10 wrongfully convicted people, according to data from the Georgia Innocence Project.
“The number of wrongful convictions in a state also made a difference, where you can say, ‘Look, there’s a problem here, a relatively big problem. And in the state of Georgia, we just haven’t been able to reach that scale,” said Michael Owens, a political scientist at Emory University and co-author of a 2012 Albany Law Review article On the question.
According to National register of exemptions47 Georgians have been exonerated after wrongful convictions since 1989. Texas, which has a legal remuneration system in place, recorded 395 exemptions during the same period.
Exemptees must now find a state representative who is willing to sponsor an individual compensation resolution and file a claim with the state. Complaints Advisory Committee. The board is made up of members from various state agencies and can only recommend compensation when a state agency is at fault.
“In the vast majority of wrongful conviction cases, it just doesn’t fit,” said Georgia Innocence Project policy specialist Hayden Davis. “Even if the board’s recommendation is non-binding, you need some sort of recommendation from them to take the next step. In a way, that’s the easy part.
After a likely rejection by the board, the individual resolution of an exonerate must go through the normal legislative process. An ad hoc committee approved this year’s three individual resolutions last week, but the resolutions are still making their way through the House alongside HB 1354.
“This whole idea that the wrongfully convicted person has to seek pardon from a legislator, to me, I just think it’s one of the most gruesome things, among the most gruesome things I can imagine in this about how we treat wrongfully convicted people,” Owens said. “I would like to see clearer statements that the state removes, removes, any hint of pardon compensation through the legislature.”
Bipartisan bill offers guidelines
The bill would create a wrongful compensation review committee that would report to the claims advisory committee. The panel would be made up of political figures: a state judge who oversees criminal justice cases; a current district attorney; a criminal defense attorney; and two other experts, either lawyers, forensic experts or law professors.
The review panel would then recommend a compensation amount to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, who could include it in the judicial budget request to lawmakers. The legislation notes that “the committee will endeavor to ensure consistency between claimants”.
“My primary goal is to create an orderly system that provides certainty and fairness to everyone in the same situation,” said Columbus Democratic State Rep. Carolyn Hugley, a co-sponsor who has many worked to change the pay system.
The bill allows for compensation recommendations ranging from $50,000 to $100,000 per year of wrongful incarceration. In the current form of the bill, the remuneration structure is mixed. Up to 25% could be paid in cash, and the rest would take the form of an annuity with guidance based on the applicant’s age. The proposed legislation would also require exonerated persons seeking compensation to prove their innocence before the panel with a preponderance of evidence.
“Would you take $50,000 a year to be unjustly imprisoned? said Molly Parmer, Robinson’s attorney and Georgia Innocence Project board member. “I think compensation is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to suffering and just the loss of freedom, and her mother, and her jobs, and social security contributions and so many things. “
Robinson has a strong support network through his family, and he was eager to get a driver’s license and a job upon his release, according to Parmer. Parmer and Holcomb, who sponsor Robinson’s individual resolve, both noted Robinson’s pleasant disposition and lack of resentment.
In what may be one of the state legislature’s last individual compensation resolutions, Robinson is seeking a $551,000 lump sum for his time behind bars.
“We must remember that this is a human being who received extraordinary punishment and the deprivation of his liberty and liberty, and the state is responsible for that,” Holcomb said. “And so we have to do something for this person who is now back with us.”