ATLANTA — A proposal to set standards for compensating people wrongly convicted of a crime in Georgia failed to pass the legislature again.
On the last day of the state’s legislative session April 4, state lawmakers, did however, approve a compensation package for two men wrongly convicted: Dennis Perry, who was arrested in January 2000 for a 1985 double murder in Camden County; and Kerry Robinson, who was wrongfully arrested for rape in 1993 in Moultrie, Georgia.
DNA evidence and analysis led to both men being released from prison in 2020.
“I am very happy for Kerry Robinson and Dennis Perry that their compensation resolutions passed,” said Atlanta House Rep. Scott Holcomb, who sponsored Robinson’s compensation resolution. “While no sum can ever fully compensate them, this money will help alleviate some of the financial strain from being wrongly incarcerated all of those years.”
Holcomb recalled walking over the Senate floor after the midnight legislative session deadline to make sure the resolutions passed before the Senate gaveled out.
"Chairman [Rep.] Don Hogan and I worked to pass these resolutions for the entirety of the legislative session," Holcomb said. "Ultimately, these resolutions were the third and second to last measures passed in the Senate before the session concluded. We pushed until the very end, and we refused to let the system fail Kerry and Dennis again.”
Hogan, a Republican from St. Simon's Island, sponsored Perry's resolution.
Despite the two men spending nearly the same amount of time behind bars, they are receiving drastically different compensation packages approved by lawmakers. Perry is set to receive more than $1.4 million over time; Kerry is set to receive $480,000 over 20 years, the lesser amount stemming from an unrelated drug offense.
Over the years, attempts to approve a comprehensive statutory compensation law has failed during several legislative sessions.
Currently, someone exonerated of a crime in Georgia can petition a state legislator to sponsor a compensation bill that would have to garner majority approval in the state legislature. The exoneree also has to submit a claim before the state Claims Advisory Board, typically tasked with reviewing tort claims filed against the state by persons claiming to have incurred personal injury or property damage as a result of negligence by state agencies. The board then makes an advisory recommendation to the General Assembly, which makes the ultimate determination on any amounts or whether to even approve the claim.
“The people that work on the Claims Advisory Board would readily tell you they don’t like the process, and it really doesn’t fit for them to be making these decisions,” said Holcomb, a former prosecutor.
This session, the "Wrongful Conviction Compensation Act" (House Bill 1354) failed to advance in the Senate, despite being approved in the House in a 157-11 vote.
The proposal, sponsored by Holcomb, defined exonerated as having a conviction reversed or vacated; having the indictment or accusation dismissed or nolle process after a retrial; someone acquitted after a retrial; or someone who received a pardon based on innocence. The exoneree could not have been convicted of any lesser included offenses.
The Wrongful Conviction Review Panel, created through the bill, would review the exoneree’s claim and recommend between $50,000 to $100,000 per year for each year of wrongful incarceration.
Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. John Kennedy had voiced concern with compensating exonerees in the event that the conviction was to no fault of the state.
“If this were a matter of the standard included prosecutorial misconduct, or the state doing something wrong, I'd be more inclined and more interested in going down this road,” Kennedy said. “As attorneys, if what we're talking about (is) they’re innocent, but they're innocent because of no fault of the state, but in short terms, the jury got it wrong.”
Of the nearly 3,000 exonerations that have occurred in the country since 1989, 61% were due to perjury or false accusation, and 56% involved official misconduct from police or prosecutors, according to National Registry of Exonerations.
The proposal received support from both the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia.
"One of the problems with trying to throw prosecutorial misconduct in there is how nebulous prosecutorial misconduct is," said Peter Skandalakis, executive director of PACG, in response to Kennedy. "When you're looking at actual innocence, that's much easier for a board or a committee to look at and make that decision based upon actual innocence. But I will also say this, any prosecutor who willfully or intentionally does something like that deserves to be disbarred."
Jill Travis, executive director of Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, has spent several years helping to draft a wrongful conviction proposals during her previous tenure working in the Office of Legislative Counsel. She recalled challenges in passing such a bill over the years, including disagreements on annuity, setting dollar amounts and even circumstances of the wrongful conviction.
"Every person and every situation is different, but it really should be viewed with a sense of some equity. .some people were given lump sums and then some were given all these metrics and tests that they had to continue to go through to keep the money...it shouldn't be who sits in power at the General Assembly to make these decisions."
Sen. Brian Strickland, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, did not allow a vote on the bill last month, stating the committee needed more time to vet it.
"When these do come for you, you want to make sure that it doesn't get out of hand where you create a way where people have gone through a criminal justice system that is then tried to get compensated through this system and then you’re missing those true cases of innocence," said Strickland in an interview following the state's legislative session.
"You've got to make sure that you set a system out that has that balance of access for people to go through it to make sure we’re allowing access for those that are wrongfully incarcerated, but we also are making sure that it's tight enough to where it's not abused," Strickland continued. "I think (HB 1354) was really close on that. I would like to start with their draft next year and spend some time on it in the Senate."
Proponents of statutory compensation laws say it's necessaryhelp fund housing, food, transportation, medical and counseling services, education and workforce assistance and legal service.
According to the Innocence Project — a nonprofit that works to exonerate the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and end wrongful conviction — Georgia is among 13 states that do not have statutes in place for compensating people wrongly convicted. The states include Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Kentucky, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and South Dakota.
A study from the National Registry of Exonerations found that Black people are more likely to be wrongfully convicted of a crime, stating that while Black people make up only 13% of the U.S., they constituted 47% of the 1,900 exonerations listed in the National Registry of Exonerations as of October 2016.