Should States Compensate Families of the Wrongly Convicted?

Author Radley Balko calls for the families of the wrongly convicted—not just for the wrongly convicted themselves—to receive compensation for what they’ve suffered.

William Lopez made headlines when he died days before trial of his lawsuit for false imprisonment was to begin. Lopez spent 23 years in prison for murder before his conviction was overturned. Lopez then sued for compensation. He had been free less than two years when he died.

Twenty states have no statutes to compensate victims of wrongful convictions. But even states that have compensation statutes restrict it in ways Balko finds unjustified.

First, there is no compensation after the wrongly convicted person dies—even though his family members likely live on. Family members of the innocent have suffered losses, too—loss of companionship of a parent, child, or spouse.

And children and spouses suffer financially because the years spent wrongfully imprisoned could have been used building financial security for them.

Balko faults other limitations, too. Under some compensation statutes, persons who falsely confessed and those who failed to appeal their convictions are not eligible.

Many innocent persons take plea bargains because some plea bargains provide huge reductions in the prison time to which one is exposed; taking a plea bargain, though, can disqualify the person from receiving compensation.

Finally, as Lopez’s case demonstrates, the state benefits from the victim’s death. Balko notes, “So long as the compensation checks stop once the victim dies, the state benefits financially by delaying an official exoneration for as long as possible.”