Wrongful imprisonment compensation rare in Iowa

Advocates for exonerees say Iowa's compensation is too low

(Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
(Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Terry L. Cox Sr. spent two years in prison for sexual assault before his stepdaughter recanted her accusation. It was another two years before Cox was exonerated and freed.

For his time behind bars, the state paid Cox $197,812.

Iowa is among 30 states and Washington, D.C., with laws that compensate people wrongfully convicted of crimes. Cox is one of only two people awarded money under Iowa’s law, enacted in 1997, according to attorneys involved in the cases.

Prosecutors say the low number of awards shows few people are wrongfully convicted in Iowa. However, defense lawyers and a director from the national Innocence Project say Iowa’s $50-a-day compensation is paltry compared to the damage caused by wrongful conviction.

“I obtained a record settlement for Terry Cox under lowa law, but not enough to make up for what he went through,” said George LaMarca, a Des Moines attorney who represented Cox.

Iowa’s compensation law was drafted after a national wave of cases in which DNA evidence exonerated people who had languished behind bars for years for crimes they didn’t commit.

More than 300 people nationwide have been exonerated by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project, a New York-based organization founded in 1992 and dedicated to using DNA evidence to free people who are wrongfully convicted.

Few qualify for compensation

Iowa’s law allows a person whose criminal conviction has been dismissed or reversed to file a claim alleging he was wrongfully imprisoned. To win the claim, a person must prove by “clear and convincing evidence” that he didn’t commit the crime.

“We want to compensate people who are truly innocent, not those that successfully avoid prosecution,” said William Hill, an assistant Iowa attorney general who has opposed several claims for compensation.

Wrongful imprisonment claims come out of the state’s general fund.

These claims differ from civil lawsuits, in which the person alleges negligence by public employees led to the conviction. In Iowa, an exonerated person must choose between these two legal actions.

About 15 people have filed claims for wrongful conviction compensation since 1997, Hill said. In most cases, while there was enough evidence to show the original conviction should be reversed, there wasn’t enough to prove the person was innocent.

Tammy Smith, of Humboldt, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2007 for child endangerment after her 4-year-old son’s arm was broken in her care. The child was nonverbal when the injury occurred, but in 2009, he told witnesses his arm broke when he stuck it in a spinning washing machine.

Smith’s conviction was overturned in 2009 and she applied in 2011 for compensation. A Humboldt County judge ruled Smith didn’t prove she or someone else did not injure the boy. The Iowa Supreme Court affirmed the decision in April.

The decision added to the devastation Smith, now 41, felt about spending more than four years in prison.

“All of this experience broke my heart,” she said. “I missed a lot of things and couldn’t see my kids growing up. There’s nothing you can do to get back the time lost.”

Few cases have DNA

Derek Johnson, a Fort Dodge attorney who represented Smith, said the “clear and convincing” standard is hard to achieve in criminal cases without DNA – which is most cases.

“In Iowa, you can be convicted on pretty scant evidence,” Johnson said. “When that evidence falls apart and they are released, there’s still not enough to be compensated for it.”

Even slight uncertainty can derail a compensation claim.

David DeSimone, of Clinton, was convicted in 2005 of raping a young woman at a party he hosted. The Iowa Courts of Appeals vacated the conviction in 2011 and sent it back to Clinton County. A jury found him not guilty of the charges in May 2012.

But when it came to DeSimone’s claim he had been wrongfully imprisoned and deserved compensation, the Iowa Supreme Court said he hadn’t proved he wasn’t involved in the assault.

“The Court has both serious and substantial doubt about the entirety of Samantha’s claims, but does believe something improper happened to her and that David was involved,” the court wrote. “Likewise, the court has serious and substantial doubts about David’s complete innocence.”

In the state’s only other successful compensation claim, Mark Leckington, of Scott County, proved he didn’t have control of a 13-year-old boy who suffered alcohol poisoning in 2003.

“While the state claimed defendant undertook charge of the victim when he and his wife left victim at their home without adult supervision after picking victim up at a friend’s place after he became heavily intoxicated, defendant had little involvement in decision,” the court wrote in a 2006 ruling.

Leckington received $19,875 in compensation and $9,930 for legal fees.

Iowa’s compensation on the low end

Iowa law provides $50 for each day a wrongfully-imprisoned person was in jail or prison, lost wages up to $25,000 a year and legal fees. The daily compensation adds up to $18,250 for a year.

This pay is toward the bottom of 30 states that offer such deals, according to the Innocence Project.

“Texas has the best law in the country,” said Rebecca Brown, the organization’s director of state policy reform.

Texas provides people who were wrongfully imprisoned $80,000 for each year they were locked up, as well as $25,000 for each year on parole or the sex offender registry. Wrongfully-imprisoned Texans also receive medical care and college tuition.

New Hampshire, on the other hand, pays a maximum $20,000, no matter how long someone spends in prison. Twenty-one states provide no compensation for wrongful convictions.

The federal government allows $100,000 a year for plaintiffs on death row and $50,000 a year for others.

“We recommend, at minimum, that it be $50,000 a year, with adjustments based on inflation,” Brown said of state policies.

Providing social services to the wrongfully convicted is vital, she said, because men and women often come out of prison with nothing. Unlike parolees who are eligible for support services and job training, someone who is exonerated may not receive those benefits.

“The wrongfully convicted are in a no-man’s land,” Brown added.

LaMarca lost track of his client, Terry Cox, years ago. Every once in a while, a new client mentions he got LaMarca’s name from Cox. But LaMarca believes the compensation for wrongful conviction should be higher in Iowa.

“It’s not just the loss of your freedom,” he said. “It’s also the mental rage of knowing you don’t belong there.”

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.