The state of Kansas stole 23 years of Lamonte McIntyre’s life — years lost with family, friends, having children or building a career.
How much is Kansas required to fork over for putting away an innocent man?
Nothing. Zero dollars. Not a single penny.
If McIntyre, who went away at 17 and is now 41, had been wrongly convicted and released in Texas, he would have been eligible to receive $1.8 million — $80,000 by law for every year lost, not including a yearly compensation afterward. Colorado gives $70,000 for each year; Alabama $50,000.
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Kansas, however, is one of 18 states that offers zero compensation for individuals who have been wrongly incarcerated and later exonerated.
“They don’t have to give him any money — or any services,” said Tricia Bushnell, director of the Midwest Innocence Project. Bushnell served as co-counsel last week to Kansas City attorney Cheryl Pilate’s eight-year effort to prove McIntyre’s innocent of a 1994 double homicide.
In prison, McIntyre was trained to be a barber. He said he will try to become certified in that trade until he figures out his future.
“If he came out on probation or parole, they (the state) would have to provide him services in finding housing, education, getting his I.D.,” Bushnell said. “They don’t have to give him anything. And, in fact, they haven’t.”
Missouri does offer exonerated individuals compensation — $50 per day of wrongful incarceration — but the law also is narrow. It only provides compensation to individuals proven innocent by DNA evidence. Only 22 percent of exonerations involve DNA, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
In both 2016 and 2017, separate bills were introduced to the Kansas legislature to compensate exonerees for wrongful incarceration. Both died.
In 2016, House Bill 2611 set compensation at the $7.25 federal minimum wage multiplied by 2,080 for each year of wrongful incarceration. That amounts to $15,080 a year; for McIntyre, it would have led to an award of close to $350,000.
Senate Bill 125 set compensation similar to the Texas law — $80,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration, plus attorney and other fees.
In February, exoneree Floyd Bledsoe of Oskaloosa, Kan., testified in favor of the bill in front of the Senate Judiciary Committeee. Bledsoe had spent 16 years in prison for a murder that his brother would ultimately confess to, prior to committing suicide.
“My dream was to be a beef farmer and I was well on my way with 40 acres of land and livestock,” Bledsoe said before the legislative committee. “That all changed on November 5, 1999. My wife’s 14-year-old sister went missing. My brother Tom confessed to killing her. He told our church pastor that he committed the crime, turned over the murder weapon, and led detectives to her body.
“Then he recanted and told police that I had admitted to the crime. Despite all the evidence that Tom was the perpetrator, police decided to charge me. I was tried and convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.… In November 2015, Tom confessed to the crime in a suicide note, and I was exonerated in December of that year.”
On the day he was released from prison, he had nothing but the clothes he wore.
“I had no money and no place to live,” Bledsoe said. “Before I went to prison, my grandmother had left me land to start my own farm. The land and my livestock had to be sold. As you can imagine, this entire ordeal tore my family apart, so I could not rely on them for assistance. When I applied for jobs, employers were nervous to hire someone who had been incarcerated, despite the fact that I was innocent. Had I actually been guilty I would have received more from the state. I would have been given $100 upon my release from prison, job training, and mentors to help me readjust to life outside of prison.
“Being innocent made me ineligible for any of these benefits.”
In her motion to exonerate McIntyre, Pilate raised serious questions regarding the misconduct of the lead detective in McIntyre’s case, Roger Golubski, as well as alleged misconduct on the part of the then-Wyandotte County prosecuting attorney, Terra Morehead and the judge, J. Dexter Burdette.
Burdette remains a sitting judge. Morehead has since become a federal prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in Kansas. Golubski retired from the Kansas City, Kan., police force in 2010 with the rank of captain.
McIntyre’s other legal option would be to sue state officials in federal court for possible violation of his civil rights under what is known as Code 1983. The code reads, in part, “Every person who …subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law….”
McIntyre could sue individuals including Golubski or the prosecutor Morehead as well the police department or the Wyandotte County District Attorney’s office.
In July, in a Missouri case, Ryan Ferguson was awarded $11 million dollars in federal court for 10 years of wrongful imprisonment. He had been convicted of the 2001 murder of the sports editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune newspaper, Kent Heitholt.
The Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District ordered Ferguson released in 2013. It expunged his convictions on robbery and murder, ruling the the prosecutor had withheld evidence center to Ferguson’s innocence.
Ferguson’s award as an exoneree was far from common.
“The vast majority of them never win a civil lawsuit,” said Michelle Feldman, legislative strategist for the New York-based Innocence Project.
The burden of proof is extremely high, particularly in proving civil rights violations on the part of police and prosecutors.
“You can do that (sue),” Feldman said. “It is just a very tough process. Police officers have conditional immunity. They have a lot of coverage under doing their job. It is really hard to get over that. Prosecutors have pretty much absolute immunity. You have to show they intentionally engaged in misconduct. It can’t just be that they screwed up.”
The cases and appeals can take many years. Awards can be overturned.
In New Orleans, John Thompson was 22 years old when in 1984, he was charged with the murder of a local businessman. Thompson was convicted and spent 18 years in prison, 14 of them on death row, before DNA evidence proved that he was innocent and he was released in 2002.
Thompson sued, holding that his civil rights had been violated, and was awarded $14 million. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011 overturned the award.
Thompson, who spent his years of freedom as a legal-reform activist while he helped other exonerees create new lives, died earlier this month at age 55.