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Bipartisan Effort Underway To Compensate Exonerated Inmates With Prior Record

MGN Online

A bipartisan effort is underway to relax Florida eligibility requirements for a wrongfully incarcerated inmate with a prior record to be compensated. But, some say they’d like to see that effort go further.

In 2012, William Dillon expressed gratitude for not only being exonerated for a murder he did not commit, but that he would get compensation for the 27 years he spent in prison.

“Isn’t God amazing,” asked Dillon, around that time. “Who could put together a team that would bring somebody back from total death, when you weren’t supposed to be there?”

Dillon spoke during the signing of his claims bill back in 2012 that gave him $1.35 million.

“And, the dollars and cents, they make sense for my life,” added Dillon. “But, it doesn’t give me back what was taken from me. At the same time, it’s such a joy to be here because my life was gone. But, I can’t do anything but look forward, and I’m blessed and happy to be here.”

Because Dillon had a prior record, he was ineligible to receive the payment automatically and had to go through what critics call Florida’s “often-flawed” claims bill process. It often takes years to accomplish.

Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa) says that’s unfair.

“Someone like William Dillon, who after 27 years in prison, for a murder he did not commit could not seek compensation because he had a past conviction for drug possession,” said Joyner. “It’s time we address this unequitable situation.”

Joyner wants to address that by relaxing the 2008 law setting the eligibility requirements, also known as the “Clean Hands provision.” Her bill changes the ineligibility standard from a “simple felony” to “violent felony.”

“This bill does no eliminate the Clean Hands provision,” she added. “Under this bill, a wrongfully incarcerated person is prohibited from receiving compensation if they committed a prior violent felony, committed a violent felony while they were in prison, or if they committed a prior felony, while they were on parole or community supervision.”

Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) is also sponsoring the measure.

“It defies common sense that we would wrongfully incarcerate somebody—someone who is actually innocent—and then deny them compensation because they did something in their past because a day, two days, a year in jail, you can’t pay that back,” said Bradley. “All we have is money, though. So, this is just the right thing to do. And, it’s completely consistent with someone like myself who is a believer in the Constitution, and the rights it gives us all.”

And, Mark Schlakman agrees. He’s the Senior Program Director for Florida State University’s Center for the Advancement of Human Rights. Schlakman is also the past board chairman of the Innocence Project of Florida, which played a role in Dillon’s exoneration using DNA testing and later compensation.

“His [Dillon’s] prior conviction, which made him ineligible for this process, is essentially possession of a Quaalude,” he said. “He had a Quaalude in his pocket. It’s essentially one pill, an illicit pill.”

Schlakman says while he sees Joyner and Bradley’s bill as a first step, he’d rather see the state do away with the “Clean Hands provision” altogether.

“And, not to excuse or justify as a 19-year-old, whether he should have had a Quaalude in his pocket, but in the great scheme of things, when you look at that in effect almost 28 years was stolen from him and the fact that having a Quaalude in his pocket, give or take he was 19-year-sold…that is the kind of the curious nature of the relationship between wrongful conviction and this clean hands requirement,” he added. “It’s long past time to repeal that provision of it.”

Joyner and Bradley’s bill has passed one Senate committee so far. A similar bill went nowhere last session.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.

Sascha Cordner has more than ten years of public radio experience. It includes working at NPR member station WUFT-FM in Gainesville for several years. She's worked in both radio and TV, serving in various capacities as a reporter, producer and anchor. She's also a graduate of the University of Florida with a bachelor's degree in telecommunications. She is the recipient of 15 awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and Edward R. Murrow. Her award-winning stories include her coverage on the infamous “Dozier School for Boys” and a feature titled "Male Breast Cancer: Lost in the Sea of Pink." Currently, Sascha serves as the host and producer of local and state news content for the afternoon news program "All Things Considered" at WFSU. Sascha primarily covers criminal justice and social services issues. When she's not reporting, Sascha likes catching up on her favorite TV shows, singing and reading. Follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter:@SaschaCordner.