A landmark moment for wrongfully convicted Ohioans arrived today, promising a measure of justice and smoother integration back into society, when Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed into law House Bill 411.
The new law opens the door for a number of exonerees to receive financial compensation for the years they spent wrongfully imprisoned, and certain hurdles that in the past have thrown the question of compensation being received into question have now been removed from the process.
“Protecting the rights and freedom of our citizens is my top priority, and when those rights are violated we have a responsibility to take action,” said Rep. Emilia Strong Sykes (D-Akron), one of the sponsors of the bipartisan bill, along with Rep. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati).
“Thanks to this bipartisan effort, Ohioans who have been wrongfully imprisoned will soon have a better path forward to reclaim their lives and receive the justice they deserve,” Sykes added.
The bill was sponsored in the Ohio Senate by Sen. John Eklund (R-18th District) and Sen. Vernon Sykes (D-28th District).
The new law specifically addresses those cases where convictions were obtained despite what are known as Brady violations. Those are cases where it is ruled that the prosecution illegally withheld evidence that could point to the real perpetrators of the crime.
“The collaborative effort behind House Bill 411 led to a narrow but important piece of legislation that drew bipartisan support in both chambers of the Ohio Legislature,” said Pierce Reed, program director of the Ohio Innocence Project (OIP) and one of the most active advocates in helping the legislation to advance. “After more than a year of debate, the overwhelming majority of legislators recognized the impact of Brady violations on the lives of Ohioans and the need to provide eligibility for compensation to innocent men and women whose convictions were tainted by violations of their fundamental rights to a fair trial.”
Among those who will be helped by the new legislation is Dale Johnston, a central Ohio man who spent six years on Ohio’s Death Row for a crime he did not commit and lost his family farm during that period of time. Johnston’s conviction was overturned in 1990 and he has attempted to receive compensation for nearly the last 30 years. Even with a declaration of innocence ruling by a judge in 2012, procedural rules have kept Johnston from being able to receive compensation.
The signing of House Bill 411 will finally clear the way for Johnston and others like him to receive compensation from the state.
Such cases stand as stark examples to a frequent assumption by the general public that those who are wrongfully convicted will automatically receive financial compensation for the hardships they have endured. Many exonerees struggle immediately upon their release, as their lives have been uprooted, they receive no support from the state and have to hope they have a strong network of family and friends to help them get through the period of readjustment that comes with returning to society.
It’s a problem seen in almost every state by the Innocence Project (New York), whose staff helped with the efforts in crafting Ohio’s new law. “Our legislative success would not have been possible without the expertise and assistance of the Innocence Project — and particularly Michelle Feldman and Rebecca Brown — and the generosity of our donors who support our efforts to help educate and inform policymakers, political leaders and the public,” said Reed. “OIP is incredibly fortunate to have our allies, and we appreciate all that they did to help ensure passage of this bill.”
Reed also expressed OIP’s gratitude for the efforts of Repesentatives Seitz and Skyes, Senators Eklund and Sykes, Speaker of the House Ryan Smith and Senate President Larry Obhoff, and all of the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Along with the Innocence Project (New York), another very important ally in the effort to push the bill forward was the Office of the Ohio Public Defender, including Ohio Public Defender Timothy Young, Legislative Liaison Niki Clum and Deputy Director Laura Austen. Sarah Schregardus, the Public Policy chair of the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, was also a key supporter.