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The Crazy Injustice of Denying Exonerated Prisoners Compensation

Already robbed of years of their lives, exonerees are being denied restitution as well.


Rafael Madrigal was at work on Wednesday, July 5, 2000, running the laminator machine at Proactive Packaging in Ontario, California. The machine was a vital component of the factory’s production line, and without the 25-year-old there to keep it humming, the entire factory would have shut down. That same day, in East Los Angeles—about a 50-minute drive from Madrigal’s workplace—a man named Ricardo Aguilera was shot in the back of the head in a drive-by. 

Madrigal claims that he’d never met, let alone shot, Aguilera. And, regardless, there was no doubt that the two were miles apart at the time of the shooting: Madrigal’s foreman even testified to that effect in court. Yet, based on shaky and contradictory eyewitness evidence, Madrigal was arrested, convicted of attempted murder, and ultimately sentenced to 28 years to life.

“I was literally living the American dream,” Madrigal says. “Then everything got pulled out from under my feet.” He’d survived a rough spell in East L.A., was working a steady job, and owned a house in Mira Loma. He had two sons, ages three and six, and his wife was pregnant. “I was hoping [the authorities] would realize the mistake,” he says, “but days turned into a week, a week turned into a year. Before you knew it, 1 year turned into nearly 10.”

An emotional Rafael Madrigal walks out of prison an exonerated man in 2009. Seven years later, he is still being denied compensation.

Photo: Courtesy of California Innocence Project

In 2009—nine years and several attorneys later—a 34-year-old Madrigal was exonerated of Aguilera’s shooting and walked out of prison with only the clothes on his back. His life had changed forever during his 2,817 days in prison. He couldn’t go back to his house—his wife had been forced to sell it when she couldn’t make the mortgage payments. His sons had become teenagers who barely knew him. And his daughter, who was born during his incarceration, had never seen him outside of a prison visiting room.

In hopes of recompense for a near decade of unjust imprisonment, Madrigal petitioned the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board for $100 for every day he’d spent in prison, the max permitted by state law at the time. But far from ending his troubles, the request began a wholly new and equally exasperating struggle to reintegrate back into free society. And, like an astonishing number of innocent men and women who have been wrongly imprisoned in California, Madrigal would again feel the full weight of society’s injustice. 

According to the National Registry of Exonerations
, 156 people have been exonerated in California since 1989, but a vast majority of them have not received the compensation of up to $140 a day that the state now offers to the wrongly imprisoned. Since the board’s inception 15 years ago, it has approved the claims of only 22 out of 80 applicants. Many exonerated prisoners don’t even bother with the onerous, often futile process.

Unlike convicted felons who leave prison on parole and are eligible for services ranging from addiction treatment to housing and employment assistance, exonerees like Madrigal walk out of prison with virtually nothing. They have years of their lives missing, and no accumulated savings, Social Security, or retirement benefits. Unlike for parolees, there is no statewide program to provide exonerees with assistance—and they often need it, as they are commonly maladapted, many of them having been in prison for over a decade. Quedellis Ricardo (Rick) Walker was exonerated in 2003 after over a dozen years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He sums up the plight of exonerees as being forced to leave prison “with their lives in a paper bag.”

Take Kenneth Foley: He was convicted of armed robbery in 1995 and sentenced to 25 years to life under the state’s three-strikes law; he was exonerated in 2007, with the full support of the Santa Clara District Attorney’s Office. Two long years later, in 2009, he was denied compensation for his 12-year wrongful imprisonment. Divorced, unable to get a job, and besieged by debilitating panic attacks from PTSD associated with repeated assaults while incarcerated, Foley wound up in an Arizona prison serving a 15-year sentence for vehicular manslaughter. In a sentencing report, he told a mitigation specialist that the outside world was “overwhelming” and that after being denied compensation, he felt “hopeless.” He developed a distrust of police officers and, in the absence of any assistance from the state, descended into self-medication with drugs and alcohol. Had he been found guilty of the original armed robbery and then paroled, he might have qualified for drug treatment.

Lucy Carter is policy director for the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University School of Law, an organization that has helped over a dozen inmates obtain their freedom. She and other experts agree that the process of gaining recompense is cumbersome, slow, and frustrating, despite recent efforts to make it easier. For one thing, exonerees often receive less money than they’re entitled to, a scenario common in other states as well. (Oddly enough, Texas—a state not known for its generosity to the incarcerated—is widely considered to have the best program: Exonerees receive a rapid lump sum payment of $80,000, plus an annuity, lost wages, and payment of attorney’s fees, along with counseling, healthcare, and tuition to a state university.)

California exonerees must wait more than a year for their first check (if it comes at all) without benefit of services like counseling or housing assistance. If there’s no one to pick them up at the prison gate, they’re simply dropped off at a bus station. Faced with this kind of official indifference, exonerees are forced to turn to their attorney, church, and volunteer organizations for housing and food—it’s not uncommon for a newly released prisoner to crash on his attorney’s couch for a few months. They are forced to rely on already burdened pro bono attorneys and charities to right a wrong that is, ultimately, the government’s responsibility.

Rafael Madrigal
filed his request for compensation in 2009. Four years later, in June 2013, he had his first hearing with the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board. It didn’t go well. 

Once a petition is filed, a hearing officer reviews the case, interviews witnesses, and makes a recommendation prior to the board’s evidentiary hearing. The California Attorney General’s Office also reviews the evidence and either opposes or supports the claim. Then, if the board signs off, the proposal wends its way through the California legislature, which must appropriate the funds, approve the measure, and send it to the governor’s desk for a confirmation signature—all so that a man already determined by a judge to be innocent can receive a check. The process often takes years—and more often than not ends in a crushing denial. (Board representatives declined to speak about individual cases with San Francisco). 

In Madrigal’s case, the hearing officer, a young attorney fresh out of law school, delayed for over eight months before recommending that Madrigal be denied compensation. When Madrigal faced the board, he was accused of gang involvement and drilled about whether anyone would have known if he had left work early. He had done everything possible to show his innocence: He had passed a voluntary polygraph test and provided witnesses to testify to his whereabouts, and he had a judicial opinion in hand saying that he was innocent. But the board was unmoved.

“Honestly, it’s like you’re on trial again,” he says. “Wait a minute—I went through a trial and appeal process, went through everything to show that I didn’t do this. It’s frustrating.”

In the meantime, Madrigal’s circumstances had grown even more desperate. One employer fired him when he voluntarily disclosed that he had been wrongly imprisoned. His older son was planning to attend college, and he fervently wanted to help. The unfairness of the situation rankles Madrigal. “I didn’t raise my hand and say ‘I’m here, put me in prison,’” he says. “It wasn’t my mistake I was there. What about all the hurt we went through in these 10 years? To sit there and say we don’t deserve anything—what is one supposed to do? We proved our innocence. You turn your back on us. That’s not enough.”

California’s compensation statute is, ostensibly, designed to aid men and women who went to prison due to mistaken eyewitness identification, bad police work, or other factors that lead prosecutors and police to proceed without sufficient or reliable evidence. It’s hard to conclude that it’s working: Most petitions don’t even proceed to the hearing stage; many are denied after a full hearing, which can include revisiting witness testimony (grueling for someone who just went through the trauma of prison and multiple court hearings). The denial of a compensation claim is often a denial of hope.

But denial is, far and away, par for the course. In order to be compensated, an exoneree must meet a nigh-impossible standard. The board requires proof that he or she is “more likely than not” innocent, one of the toughest standards among the 30 states with compensation statutes (many have no specific standard). In a radical departure from a criminal trial, the burden is on the exoneree to prove his or her innocence, which, in the absence of DNA evidence, can be challenging for someone without resources to hire investigators. In some states, including Missouri, DNA evidence is actually required for compensation. While California has no such requirement, exonerees here usually must prove that someone else committed the crime: The decision to release an exoneree from prison in no way translates into a determination of innocence under the compensation statute. In fact, the board often rehears the evidence and comes to its own decision. Even exonerees who’ve been found factually innocent (an additional legal step beyond mere release, indicating that the exoneree absolutely did not commit the crime) have been refused compensation.

Antoine Goff and John Tennison, for example, were teens in 1990, when they were both sent to prison with potential life sentences for killing a man in Hunters Point. Two teenage girls testified that they had seen Goff and Tennison at the scene, but their statements were inconsistent, and no other evidence linked the pair to the crime. Thirteen years later they were freed, following a 103-page opinion by Judge Claudia Wilken that declared them factually innocent based on evidence that the eyewitnesses had not only lied but been paid off from a secret witness fund by the San Francisco Police Department. (Goff and Tennison successfully sued the city for wrongful conviction.) San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi, who was a young lawyer when he defended Tennison at his initial trial, describes the case as a “travesty of justice.” 

Nevertheless, the board denied Goff and Tennison compensation, arguing that the findings of the jury trial should take precedence—even though the jury had never heard most of the evidence and had made its decision based on tainted testimony at best. Additionally, the board focused on claims that Goff and Tennison had been involved in ongoing gang wars and therefore could not be considered completely innocent. 

Goff was stunned when he didn’t receive state compensation, because he had a finding of factual innocence backed by San Francisco’s then district attorney, Terence Hallinan. “We just thought it was a no-brainer,” he says. But then again, it wasn’t the first time that the justice system had failed him. Short on funds, he took odd jobs before landing a permanent position in the custodial department on UCSF’s Parnassus campus. Unlike others railroaded into a conviction, Goff received a $2.9 million civil settlement from San Francisco. Had he been left to wait for an elusive payment from the state, he admits, he “might’ve gone crazy.”

The board’s unduly high standards add “insult to injury,” says Adachi. “I do think we have to reform the laws and provide triple damages when the state opposes compensation.” Even when prosecutors violate the law, he continues, “there’s no penalty. Prosecutors aren’t held accountable for errors, so for them, there’s no downside to simply continuing to deny that they were wrong.”

Adachi hired the released Tennison as a legal clerk in his office, but many others are not as lucky. Another recent exoneree, Maurice Caldwell, a San Francisco native, was in prison for two decades for a murder he did not commit. Although he was released in 2011, he has yet to receive any compensation. The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, in fact, continues to oppose his compensation petition. Caldwell, who has a civil lawsuit pending against the city and would not comment for this story on the advice of his lawyers, injured his back and cannot work. He is currently subsisting on the generosity of others until the city, state, or both decide to remedy the mistakes they made. 

The prosecutors
who put away Tennison and Goff opposed their petition for compensation; the same was true of Caldwell’s prosecutor. Madrigal had it even worse: The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office recharged him with the same crime after his release from prison. It subsequently offered him a plea deal, which he refused, and finally gave up due to lack of evidence. Nobody has ever thought to offer an apology, which, Madrigal says, “would at least give me a sense of relief.” His compensation case is currently on appeal to a state court. 

Even in a case like Rick Walker’s, in which the DA’s office supported the exoneration, the compensation was slow to come and insufficient. A retired assistant DA from Santa Clara County, Karyn Sinunu-Towery—who currently volunteers for the Northern California Innocence Project and has assisted Walker in his quest for release and compensation—believes there should be a restitution fund specifically for exonerees. She says that despite her support, “Mr. Walker still needed a state senator to sponsor a bill and see it passed before Mr. Walker could receive his long-overdue $100 per day for being falsely imprisoned by the state.” 

Walker is ready to tell anyone who’s willing to listen about the state’s treatment of exonerees. “I’m kind of a fortunate one,” he says, because he was able to live with his mother after his release and within a year received $421,000 as recompense for his 12 years of unjust incarceration. He believes that a newly exonerated person requires “at least 50 grand and someone with good sense to show him what to do with it. He has to set up and establish himself. He doesn’t need to wonder where his next month’s rent comes from. He needs clothing. He needs direction. Is he going to school? Is he going to work? Is he going to concentrate on his physical being or his emotional or spiritual being?”

The laws are changing for the better, albeit slowly. In 2013, Senator Mark Leno successfully supported a bill to streamline the compensation process and make a finding of factual innocence binding for the board. In October 2015, after about 15 years at $100, the compensation per day of incarceration was increased to $140 in a bill jointly sponsored by state senators on opposite sides of the aisle, Leno and Yuba County Republican senator Jim Nielsen. Leno was surprised and disappointed to learn from this reporter that most exonerees applying for the funds are denied. “Someone who has been wrongfully convicted,” he says, “should not have to struggle to get the compensation that the state owes him or her.” 

The process remains arduous, even for those with powerful backers. Ronald Ross was wrongfully convicted of attempted murder and freed after seven years in prison. Represented by Reid Mullen at Keker & Van Nest in San Francisco, he received $229,000 from the board last year after about two years. Even with the state AG’s support, free representation from a prestigious law firm, and a general consensus that he was innocent, winning his compensation was a difficult, years-long slog.

For Goff and Tennison, the changes in the compensation process came too late; the finding of factual innocence in their case would now automatically qualify them for compensation. Both men sued the city and won multi-million-dollar settlements, but these civil rights lawsuits take time and resources to pursue. And, in the end, there is no way to measure the losses the wrongfully imprisoned suffer by missing irreplaceable experiences: weddings, funerals, child rearing, marriage. Madrigal’s father died, his daughter was born, and his younger son became gravely ill while he was in prison. He’s heartbroken that he missed what he sees as the prime years of his kids’ childhoods. “Every time you get to see your kids,” Madrigal says, “they ask, ‘When are you coming home?’” He would tell them that he was coming home soon. “I could never say, ‘I’m coming home tomorrow,’” he says.

Since his release, Madrigal has worked hard to savor each moment, but he is still haunted. He still often wakes at 4 a.m., as he did in prison. “It wasn’t easy readapting to society,” he says. “It was just hard. You’re living in a five-by-eight cell 23 hours a day. You just can’t say, ‘OK, everything is normal.’ It was learning how to live again.”

Madrigal has a job and is slowly putting his life back together. His oldest son is in college and hopes to become a biology teacher. Madrigal expresses nothing but admiration for his kids and how hard they have worked. He’s grateful for the support of his family, which makes the insinuations he hears that he is not innocent all the more heartbreaking for him. “I would have never put my family through this if it wasn’t true,” he says of his fight for redress. To him, the monetary compensation is, above all, about acknowledging a harm: “Materialistic stuff comes and goes,” he says. “All the money in the world wouldn’t give back what I lost when I went into prison.”

Update: The original version of this story mistakenly suggested that the Northern California Innocence Project helped Rick Walker obtain his freedom. Rather, he was represented by Alison Tucher of Morrison & Foerster. The story also misidentified the county where retired assistant DA Karyn Sinunu-Towery worked. It was Santa Clara County, not Contra Costa County.

Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco

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