ZURIK: Exonerated inmates struggle to receive compensation owed to them in Louisiana
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - At 20 years old, a Jefferson Parish judge sentenced Malcolm Alexander to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The District Attorney accused Alexander of committing rape, after the victim identified him four months after the assault, after viewing hundreds of pictures from a photo lineup.
Alexander was offered a plea bargain, but refused it, saying he didn’t commit the crime. He couldn’t afford an attorney, so the court appointed him one. Jury selection, the trial, and the verdict all came in a single day. Alexander’s attorney didn’t make any opening statements or call any witnesses.
Alexander spent the next 38 years of his life in prison, rarely able to see his family or spend time with his son who was two years old when Alexander was sentenced.
“They took me away from my family, to be honest with you, they took me away from my family, I missed my family,” Alexander said.
Nearly four decades after his conviction, Alexander became a free man again. Innocence Project New Orleans took his case. DNA testing proved that pubic hairs found where the rape took place did not belong to Alexander.
Alexander says adjusting to the world after spending decades behind bars has been a struggle.
“Believe it or not, my hand is being held like a newborn baby,” Alexander said.
A state law allows people who were wrongfully convicted to receive compensation of $40,000 per year, for each year behind bars, capped at ten years. For Alexander, that could eventually add up to $400,000 from a taxpayer-funded account.
The law says in order to qualify, a person’s conviction has to be reversed or vacated, and clear and convincing scientific or non-scientific evidence has to exist that proves factual innocence, meaning the facts show the person didn’t commit the crime.
Even though DNA evidence cleared Alexander, nearly five years after his release, he hasn’t received any of the money. That’s because Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office is fighting to give Alexander any compensation.
“It feels like I’m still fighting for my innocence,” Alexander said.
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Innocence Project New Orleans attorney Zac Crawford says the state has fought almost every case in recent years, delaying payments to exonerated inmates.
“You come home with $10 in a bus ticket. That’s all the state gives you when you get out of prison,” Crawford said. “You’re thrown back into a world that you don’t recognize you are forced to work for your living, despite having really no skills gained in prison. And having lost so much time. And that’s not even to get into, you know, the trauma and the stress that these folks go through transitioning back into society, for which the delay in getting compensation means they don’t have access to resources to really help them with that.”
Louisiana lawmakers passed a law to compensate exonerated inmates in 2005, and Crawford says early on, only select cases were challenged by the sitting Attorney General.
“And for the most part, the statute has worked exactly as it should, compensating those folks who didn’t commit the crime. And in fact, that’s what the statute says clearly, factual innocence is those who did not commit the crime,” Crawford said.
Charles Foti served as Attorney General from 2004 until 2008 and opposed two of the four exonerated inmates cleared during his time in office.
Buddy Caldwell stayed in office from 2008 to 2016 and opposed 9 of 27 cases - about 27%.
However, since Jeff Landry became Attorney General in 2016, he’s opposed 10 of 12 cases, a rate of 83%. The two he didn’t oppose involved fingerprint evidence.
Landry refused FOX 8′s request for an on-camera interview.
“I have supported compensation in cases where the evidence was clear and convincing that the petitioner did not commit the crime. Juries at the trial court level have found Jones and Alexander guilty of rape. The men have no alibis, no witnesses to disprove their victims, and no physical evidence proving their innocence,” Landry said in a statement.
However, DNA cleared Alexander in his rape, and while Landry’s office uses DNA evidence to convict, he isn’t considering it to compensate. The legal moves haven’t necessarily stopped people from getting money altogether. It has mostly slowed down the process, and cost taxpayers money and time while the issues are fought through the court system.
Of the 10 cases Landry has opposed, three are still pending. In the other seven, the wrongfully accused have fought in court and won. In all those seven cases, the judge ruled against Landry and awarded the exonerated person compensation. Crawford says the decision to fight most cases ends up being a waste of resources.
“If the AG’s office used their discretion, if they thought about their overarching goal, which is to seek justice, not just for the victims of crime, but for all Louisiana citizens, including these victims of the criminal justice system, then they could use that discretion and agree to let these cases go through and allow these folks to get compensated,” Crawford said.
In early May, the Louisiana Supreme Court said Landry’s office had a faulty argument and awarded exonerated inmate Wilbert Jones compensation.
“Well, they could give me $100 million. Guess what? They can’t buy my life back … I mean, you can’t buy a life. I mean, what they give me still won’t be enough to cover that, that’s something you can’t buy,” he said.
Jones spent nearly 50 years in prison for the kidnapping and rape of a nurse. At his trial, authorities withheld evidence that could have exonerated him decades ago. His accuser spent 10 to 15 minutes looking at a lineup before identifying Jones. But she said she wasn’t sure, and noted Jones’ voice sounded different than her attacker, that Jones was shorter, and didn’t have a gap in his front teeth. She later told investigating officers she wasn’t positive of her identification of Jones as her attacker.
Prosecutors still brought the case to court and Jones was sent to prison.
Jones was released in 2018 and has been working at LSU cleaning tables in the dining areas. He was recently named employee of the month. Jones says finding out he’ll finally receive some compensation will help to make ends meet.
“It’s gonna help me pay for this home my wife and I have cause I always had the desire to have my own home. Cause I learned in prison there ain’t nothing like your home, that’s something they can’t take away from you,” Jones said.
Meantime, while Alexander was cleared by DNA evidence, he’s still fighting for compensation.
“I’m still having the dreams that I’m fighting for my innocence, I’m actually fighting to be free,” Alexander said.
Alexander works a full-time job for the Jefferson Parish Water Department. After being locked away for nearly 40 years, at 63 years old, he has little money to fund the rest of his life.
“I think I’m trying to stay in good health. I think I could go to about 75 … I don’t know if I could work at 80. But I think I can make it to 75,” Alexander said.
He spends his free time rebuilding relationships with loved ones he was taken away from, including his son.
“He was two years old when I was put away and he was 40 when I got out,” Alexander said. “But it still is not fully like I raised him. He was raised between my parents and his mother. And we have the father and son bond, but he knows and I know, that something is missing.”
Landry also pointed FOX 8 to the dissenting opinion of State Supreme Court Justice William Crain in Wilbert Jones’ case. Crain wrote that since the victim is now deceased, she could not recant her identification saying, in part, “Here, I do not believe Mr. Jones can prove by clear and convincing evidence he is factually innocent without A.H. recanting her identification, or at least being able to defend it. Thus, no civil recovery is available. I dissent.”
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