Mark Godsey, University of Cincinnati law professor and director of the Ohio Innocence Project.

Provision on wrongful imprisonment axed, but may get second life

Backers still hope to expand who can get compensation for those wrongfully imprisoned.

A proposal to broaden who’s eligible for state money for being wrongfully imprisoned was removed from Ohio’s proposed state budget this week, but backers hope to bring it back as a standalone bill.

“And we anticipate it passing,” said Mark Godsey, director of the Ohio Innocence Project. “This is merely correcting a decision by the Ohio Supreme Court that didn’t reflect legislative intent. We know that because the original drafters are still in the legislature and they acted to correct it.”

One of those drafters was state Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, who included it as an amendment to the state budget, but it was removed this week. He didn’t return a call Wednesday asking if or when he expects to re-submit it.

RELATED: Overturned convictions could cost Ohio more under budget proposal Critics said the change deserved more testimony and vetting than a budget amendment. Some claimed it could cost the state tens of millions of dollars, which backers refute. As a budget amendment, it doesn’t get the cost analysis standalone legislation does.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine opposed the change in a June 19 letter to Ohio Senate President Larry Obhof.

“The language allows a claimant to be compensated for an error in procedure which occurred prior to conviction, without proving actual innocence,” he wrote. “This could result in the state paying millions of dollars to claimant who are released on a technicality.”

He raised the spectre of a rapist getting money because a confession was thrown out, or a drug dealer who was arrested after drugs were found using a search warrant, but released after the a judge rules the search warrant was improper so the evidence can’t be used in court.

RELATED: Senate passes state budget: How will it impact you? The change would have allowed someone whose conviction was overturned due to an “error in procedure” to sue the state for more than $52,000 for each year they were behind bars. Seitz has said this is what lawmakers intended when they wrote the current law in 2002, but it was changed by an Ohio Supreme Court ruling to only apply to errors that occur after sentencing.

Godsey said this week, “The bells of alarm raised by a few are unfounded. This law was in effect from 2003 until the Supreme Court decision in 2014 and there was no floodgates or massive string of payouts. Passing this bill is the right answer.”

Godsey said that the law will only make someone eligible for compensation if they can prove they are innocent or that their civil rights were violated.

He cited the example of Dale Johnson, who spent years on death row before his conviction was overturned because the prosecutor in the case withheld evidence of a different suspect who later pleaded guilty to the gruesome double murder.

“Passing this measure will help the wrongfully convicted get the resources they deserve and deter prosecutors from serious misconduct that can result in innocent people going to prison and real perpetrators going undetected,” Godsey wrote in a letter to this newspaper.

This month, the most recent payout under the current law went to a Springfield man who received $111,846 because he was wrongfully imprisoned 192 days after a court of appeals ordered him released because the search warrant used to find three pounds of cocaine in his home was deemed improper.

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