Going to Bat for an Ex-Con

Okay, okay, I’ve turned into a leftwing liberal.

Just ask some of my Republican friends who think I’ve gone off my rocker in sponsoring a bill known simply as H2228 and H5119.

But it’s something that will benefit one of my constituents, an ex-con. Let’s call him “Angel.”

Seems that Angel spent 13 years—13 years!--in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. He was released from prison just last year, thanks to DNA evidence that proved that he couldn’t have been the rapist.

Now, think about that. Thirteen years, in prison, knowing you weren’t guilty. Prison bed, prison food, prison company, prison rules and regulations. And that’s not bad enough.

Angel lost his home. His wife. His job. Even his kids.

Now, 13 years later, and his life is gone. Oh, he’s trying to rebuild it, his kids are drifting back into his life, he’s found a place to live. But it’s not easy getting a job when you’re an ex-con, even if you weren’t guilty. Who believes you? No real job training, no college education.

So I’ve joined the Progressive Caucus in sponsoring “An Act Relative to the Wrongfully Convicted.”

It would allow persons who have been convicted and incarcerated, but later released on grounds of innocence, to appeal to the Superior Court for up to $500,000 in compensation. They could get state assistance for half of their educational expenses in state higher education. And, the court would expunge their records, making it possible to find employment. They might even be eligible for free counseling, to help them move on with their lives. No, not a lot of innocent people are convicted and serve time. But, when they are, they deserve restitution.

Right now, in Massachusetts, I know of at least nine cases.

Bobby Joe Leaster and Lawyer Johnson, for example. Both convicted of murder in 1971. Both spent more than ten years in prison before new evidence caused their release.

The Legislature, ten years ago, gave Leaster a $500,000 annuity. So far, Johnson has nothing.

And neither does Angel.

There are others. Neil Miller, cleared by DNA, after serving 10 years for rape. Marlon Passley and Donnell Johnson, released after serving four and five years for murder. Kenneth Waters, released last year after serving 18 years for murder.

False testimony sent Peter Limone and Joseph Salvati, Joseph Greco and Henry Tameleo to prison. Limone and Salvati were released after more than 30 years. Greco and Henry died in prison.

But false testimony isn’t that common. Most wrongful convictions involve human error.

Is there a basis for offering redress to those wrongfully convicted? Yes. Fifteen states already have laws on the books, as does the District of Columbia. Even the Federal government has, for 50 years, granted the right to sue for damages if unjustly convicted and imprisoned.

If we describe inmates as paying their debt to society, then society must repay its debt to them when they are wrong convicted.

No, no amount of money can make things right. No amount of money can erase the memories or the conviction or bring back jobs and families and homes. No amount of money can bring back youth, free time, walks in the park, softball games, picnics with the kids.

And I’m not even sure $500,000 is enough.

But I do know that we have a moral responsibility, a moral obligation, to recompense those who have been wronged by state action.

And, that includes my constituent, your neighbor, Angel.

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