What financial number would you put on the loss of nine years, nine years of freedom exchanged for nine years in prison? What’s the price of family separation, damaged relationships, stress and anxiety? What’s fair compensation for health ramifications and ongoing required treatment? What about lost wages and impaired future earnings? As mentioned on this blog today (here), Nicholas V. Midey Jr., Judge of the New York Court of Claims, ruled on April 4, 2013, that for Daniel Gristwood, 46, a father of five who spent nine years in prison for a crime he did not commit, the appropriate compensation from New York state is $5,485,394.
Directly from Judge Midey’s 22-page ruling:
The awards made herein can therefore be summarized as follows:
Loss of Liberty, Mental Anguish and loss of Family Relationships while Incarcerated $2,700,000.00
Continuing Pain and Suffering, including Post Incarceration Psychological Issues $1,920,000.00
Treatment of Post-Incarceration Psychological Issues $ 100,000.00
Lost Earnings While Incarcerated $ 332,400.00
Impaired Earning Capacity $ 432,994.00
TOTAL $ 5,485,394.00
Gristwood was arrested and convicted in 1996 of a vicious hammer attack on his wife, Christina, which left her brain-damaged and unable to testify. He was sentenced to 12 ½ to 25 years in prison. According to a detailed account of the case by Maurice Possley on the National Registry of Exonerations (here), Gristwood confessed after “16 hours of questioning with no food and with no sleep for 34 hours.”
He later claimed his confession was coerced.
A neighbor who had at first said Gristwood’s car was at the home at a time consistent with the crime, later testified that her police statement was wrong and she had actually seen the car there the next morning.
No physical evidence connected Gristwood to the crime.
In 2002, Mastho Davis, began telling authorities that he was responsible for the Gristwood attack. Davis had recently been released from prison after serving five years for a burglary and attack on a woman in her apartment that occurred two months after Christina Gristwood’s beating. In 2003 police took Davis’s statement, which included convincing detail about the Gristwood home.
Gristwood’s attorney continued to investigate and in 2005 Justice John Brunetti, the original sentencing judge in the case, vacated Gristwood’s conviction. Gristwood was freed and charges were dismissed in 2006.
The National Registry of Exonerations’ report notes, “Not long after, Davis, who could not be charged with attacking Christina Gristwood because the statute of limitations had expired, was convicted of beating and raping a 75-year-old woman in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. He was sentenced to life in prison.”
The judge’s decision on compensation provides a glimpse of the anguish suffered by those imprisoned for crimes they did not commit:
“Clearly claimant, through his loss of liberty for nine years, also lost the fundamental right to enjoy his life, and instead faced nine years of strict confinement in a maximum security prison with a loss of all of his civil rights and liberties. This loss of liberty, justifies a substantial award, even though any amount awarded cannot adequately compensate claimant for his loss of freedom.”
The opinion added:
“Clamant testified that at all times during his incarceration, he was nervous, scared, and depressed, and that prison life was like a “living hell.” He witnessed several violent acts committed against others while in prison, and testified that an inmate had to always be on the lookout to keep from being randomly assaulted.”
Among other losses that contributed to Gristwood’s anguish:
“the realization that his five young children had been effectively deprived of their parental relationship”
…because his wife could never again care for their children, an aunt and stepmother fulfilled this role, but both died while Gristwood was in prison
…he was unable to provide care to his wife after her devastating injuries and the marriage was “terminated by divorce”
Both defense and prosecution witnesses agree that Gristwood suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder that will require ongoing treatment. His future earnings capacity has been significantly impacted by this experience.
The judge’s opinion is instructional to those who read about the occasional compensation provided to some of those imprisoned for crimes not committed. The human and financial damages of a wrongful conviction explode with profound impact on children, family members, and other victims. The guilty continue crimes of violence; in this case two other women were known to be savagely bludgeoned (one to death) by the real perpetrator of Christina Gristwood’s heinous beating that left her forever incapacitated.
In this context, taxpayer’s damages, even of $5.5 million, seem the least of the injuries. A possible positive legacy for those who have suffered from wrongful conviction is improved justice—the growing recognition in the United States and around the world of the need to implement reforms and best practices that will minimize miscarriages of justice. Every wrongful conviction reminds us with horrific clarity that to oppose implementation of cost-neutral methods that can improve the integrity and accuracy of convictions is irresponsible and unconscionable.