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Virginia does not compensate innocent people who plead guilty under duress

Some state lawmakers continue to push for change
Prison bars
Posted at 6:30 AM, Jul 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-14 07:06:39-04

RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia’s compensation for wrongfully incarcerated people does not guarantee funds for innocent people who plead guilty.

“If you want to look for one issue that shouldn't be political, this would be this would be it right? Compensating people that we all now know have been in prison for things they did not do,” said state Delegate Rip Sullivan (D).

Sullivan introduced a measure earlier this year to extend wrongful incarceration compensation to people who pleaded guilty and were later exonerated, but the measure hit a roadblock in committee with his colleague, Delegate Rob Bell (R). They compromised on compensating innocent people who entered an Alford Plea, which is when a defendant does not plead guilty, but acknowledges the evidence against them would likely end in their conviction.

“Sometimes people who are innocent plead guilty,” Sullivan said.

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 12 percent of people exonerated pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit.

“You would get a much more severe sentence if you went to trial than if you pled guilty,” said U.S. District Judge Rakoff in a video for the Innocence Project explaining the guilty plea problem. “[Some people] decide to plead guilty because they can’t take the risk that if they go to trial and are convicted, they will be facing 10, 15, or 20 or more years with devastating effects on themselves and their families.”

Eric Weakley spent six years in prison for the murder of a Culpeper, Virginia woman – a murder he did not commit. He told a House of Delegates committee considering Sullivan’s proposal that he pleaded guilty due to pressure from police, prosecutors and his own attorney. By pleading guilty, he faced less time that if he would have gone to trial.

“I want each and every one of ya’ll to look at me and ask yourself, what would you do if you were standing here? For all of us that’s been wrongfully convicted of any crime in our life? That sat in the interrogation room for 16, 17 hours and wouldn’t let you go home? Showing you pictures of a woman’s face blown off? You can’t get that out of your head. I’m still left with it 16 years, today!” he exclaimed during the hearing in January.

“Please compensate me, man,” he continued. “What if this was your child? What if it was you? Your mother? Your father? Your sibling? Anybody?”

While Weakley’s plea did not persuade lawmakers to guarantee compensation for everyone who pleads guilty and is later proven innocent, state lawmakers did agree to compensate Weakley for his time in prison this summer. In fact, the General Assembly can use its discretion to compensate innocent people who plead guilty. For example, the General Assembly agree to pay the so-called “Norfolk Four” $3.5 million in 2018. The four sailors falsely confessed to the 1997 rape and murder of Michelle Moore-Bosko in Norfolk. It was later revealed disgraced Norfolk detective Robert Glenn Ford used intimidating tactics to force their confessions. Ford later spent a decade in prison on unrelated federal extortion charges.

“I’ll keep standing on my soapbox, screaming about this and trying to persuade people until we get the job done,” said Sullivan regarding protections for innocent people who plead guilty. “I'm confident we will.”

News 3 reached out to Del. Bell for comment, but there was no response as of this report.

Earlier this year, News 3 Investigates revealed Virginia also falls behind national average for compensation innocent people who served time in prison. The national average for compensating the wrongfully incarcerated is $70,157 per year spent in prison, according to data from a study highlighted in the Virginia House Appropriations Committee’s 2020 report “Wrongful Incarceration Compensation Formula in Virginia”.

“I can unequivocally say no, it is not enough,” said Juliet Hatchett with the UVA Innocence Project. “A person who has been wrongfully convicted has been denied choices, liberties, and options for however long they were incarcerated, and we should do everything we can do give them their choices, their liberties, their options as quickly as possible.”

Up until this year, Virginia paid out $46,895 per year. As of this summer, thanks to Sullivan’s measure, Virginia compensates the wrongfully incarcerated of $55,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment. He pushed for more, but it did not gain bipartisan support. Texas, for example, ranks among the top when it comes to compensating the wrongfully incarcerated at $97,262 per year of wrongful imprisonment.

“Do we really want Virginia to be anything but at the front of the pack in terms of how we treat our citizens who've been so badly wronged?” said Del. Sullivan. “I know of no one in the General Assembly, who doesn't agree that some anyone in Virginia has been wrongfully incarcerated deserves compensation. Where sometimes we break down in the discussion […] is how much they get compensated.”

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 68 people have been exonerated in Virginia since 1989, totaling 606 years lost.

“We didn’t deserve to be falsely accused and sent to prison,” said Emerson Stevens, who was granted an absolute pardon by former Gov. Ralph Northam last year after spending nearly 32 years in prison for a 1986 murder in Lancaster. “We all deserve more than what the state of Virginia is offering us.”

Stevens will receive nearly $1.7 million from the General Assembly next month as compensation for the three decades he spent in prison as an innocent man. According to the budget bill for his compensation, an investigator with a history of misconduct helped pave the way for his conviction. Additionally, the UVA Innocence Project learned prosecution’s main witness lied on the stand, and unreliable science was used to incorrectly link a hair on Stevens’ truck to the murder victim.

Related: 'Great feeling to be here free': Pardoned Chesapeake man convicted of robbery freed almost a decade later

“I [still have] nightmares of the things that I’ve seen in prison,” said Stevens. “[The money] don’t bring back the years that I spent in prison, but I can live the rest of my life out, living comfortable.”

Del. Sullivan and state Senator Louise Lucas said they will introduce legislation to increase Virginia’s compensation for the wrongfully incarcerated again in the next General Assembly session.

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