Jeffrey Rodriguez was in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles when he was identified as the man who robbed an employee at an auto-parts store the night before.
He spent more than five years in a Santa Clara County jail before being released in February 2007 – declared factually innocent of the crime, his arrest and conviction expunged from the record.
But when Rodriguez, now 32, applied for compensation from a state fund for the wrongly convicted – $138,100 in his case – a three-person state panel denied his request. As he soon found out, there are degrees of innocence in California.
Rodriguez is one of 44 Californians released from prison since 2000 who have been denied money after a hearing before the state’s victim compensation board, which can award $100 a day for each day spent behind bars after a wrongful conviction.
Out of the 132 people who have filed claims during that timeframe, 11 former inmates have been awarded compensation, with payments ranging from $17,200 to $756,900, for a total cost to taxpayers of more than $3 million.
Fourteen former inmates are awaiting a hearing. Those who received compensation typically relied heavily on DNA evidence, which may not be as readily available to inmates who lack legal resources.
“The whole process is a mess,” said Jeff Chinn, assistant director of the California Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic based out of the California Western School of Law in San Diego, which frequently handles compensation claims on behalf of the wrongfully convicted. “Our clients are asked to prove things far beyond what is reasonable.”
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The Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board, a three-person state administrative body, must approve compensation claims before they are sent to the state Legislature for a final vote. Officials for the board said they analyze each case fairly and permit evidence that typically would not be considered in a criminal or civil trial, such as hearsay.
But advocacy groups that work with the wrongfully convicted said the board sets requirements that are nearly impossible to meet and implements them inconsistently. Chinn said the process is so subjective that “basically no one knows what it takes to be successful.”
California is one of 27 states, along with the District of Columbia, that pay compensation to victims of wrongful conviction. But in many states, including California, simply being exonerated by a judge isn’t enough to qualify for compensation. In Missouri, innocence must be proven through DNA testing. In Maine, it takes an official pardon from the governor.
More than 200 people in California have been wrongfully convicted of crimes since 1989, according to an American Civil Liberties Union estimate. Innocence advocates note that the vast majority of the exonerated face a life of poverty once they are released because they can’t find a job after living years behind bars.
Under state law, claimants must prove three points to receive compensation: that they did not commit the crime or that the crime did not take place; that they did not intentionally contribute to their own arrest by “voluntarily” or “knowingly” pleading guilty to the crime; and that they experienced financial losses as a result of their incarceration. The process can take two years from the filing of the claim to the hearing.
Victim’s description changes
When Rodriguez emerged from prison in 2007, he was a shadow. He’d lost so much weight that his family barely recognized him, and it took months before he could look at a police car and not feel dread. He gorged on junk food.
Never mind that junk food had inadvertently helped lead to Rodriguez’s conviction. During the investigation, a stain on his pants was identified as motor oil from the auto shop he’d allegedly robbed. Rodriguez's lawyers had the pants retested after his conviction, and the stain, it turned out, was probably residue from fried chicken that Rodriguez had eaten the night before his arrest.
But in Rodriguez’s case, a ruling of factual innocence from a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge was insufficient for the board to rule in his favor.
A July 2009 report by Dorothy Y. Le, a compensation board hearing officer, suggested that the decision was made in part because the victim of the robbery still believed Rodriguez was guilty.
But the victim’s description of the robber had changed significantly from the day of the crime to Rodriguez’s eventual conviction. He was first described as clean-shaven, then not. He went from wearing a hooded sweatshirt to wearing a leather jacket.
The confusion was significant enough that a jury voted 11-1 in favor of Rodriguez’s acquittal. Prosecutors nevertheless retried the case. Rodriguez’s attorney scaled back his defense when the family ran out of money, and the second jury voted for conviction.
In 2009, Santa Clara County settled with Rodriguez for $1 million in response to a lawsuit that alleged prosecutorial misconduct, among other things. Rodriguez used some of the money to buy a home in Los Banos, where he now lives with his girlfriend and their young son.
Although the $1 million payment may lessen sympathy for Rodriguez, the Santa Clara lawsuit was focused on punishing county prosecutors for alleged errors during the trial. Rodriguez still had a right to seek compensation from the state for his wrongful imprisonment.
He says he tries not to think too much about the time he spent in prison, or about his older son, whom he no longer sees because the boy’s mother left him and remarried.
“I lost five years of my life,” he said. “There’s nothing that will ever make up for that.”
In compensation cases like Rodriguez’s in which DNA evidence is unavailable (police never found the gun used in the robbery), much of the controversy stems from how the board interprets the “preponderance of evidence.” The legal meaning of “preponderance of evidence” is subjective, said Alison D. Morantz, a law professor at Stanford University.
“In principle, it means more likely than not, so even a slight tip of the scales of justice would be sufficient,” said Morantz, who added that in practice, the interpretation of “preponderance of evidence” varies widely.
Does race play a role?
In the case of Kevin Baruxes, a now-32-year-old with an Aryan symbol tattooed on his head, evidence that the woman he was convicted of raping was a habitual liar and was “90 percent sure” that he wasn’t her attacker was enough to win his release from prison and his compensation claim.
The board recommended that Baruxes, whose case also was represented by the California Innocence Project, be awarded $258,700 for serving 7.5 years in prison.
David I. Gross/Northern California Innocence ProjectAntoine Goff is shown outside his mother's San Francisco apartment, where he lived after his release from prison.
But for John J. Tennison and Antoine Goff, two African-Americans who spent 13 years each in prison after a 1989 gang killing in San Francisco, a ruling of factual innocence and a finding that the prosecution had failed to disclose critical evidence wasn’t enough to sway the compensation board.
The judge who reversed Tennison and Goff’s conviction (and called them “innocent men” in a news conference) had ruled that the prosecution did not disclose a secret payment fund for witnesses to the murder. Prosecutors also failed to mention that another man had given a taped confession to police. And they didn’t disclose the results of a polygraph examination given to one of the witnesses after she recanted – or that two eyewitnesses had contradicted two young girls who testified.
But the compensation board’s report refers to the confessed perpetrator as the “purported admitted murderer” and states that the confession doesn’t necessarily mean that Tennison and Goff were innocent. The board voted against compensation.
“After all I went through, I thought getting the $100 a day would just be a matter of procedure,” Goff said. “But when they denied me, it brought me back to reality. ”
In all cases, the compensation board’s final decision rests in the hands of the three board members. But the claim undergoes a review process by staff members before the board considers the case – if it ever gets there. Since 2000, the board’s staff has rejected 47 cases without recommending a full hearing.
Although the individuals whose claims went to a hearing were about evenly divided between those who were white and those who were black or Latino, white claimants were more likely to win the approval of the board. Of the 10 individuals whom the board has approved for compensation, seven are white and three are black or Latino.
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Linda Starr, legal director of the Northern California Innocence Project, which assisted Rodriguez with his exoneration and compensation claim, said marginalized communities often have less access to legal resources, which could account for the discrepancy.
“It’s unlikely that this is a case of, ‘This person is this color, so I’m going to deny them,’” she said. “But, ‘This person is this color, and for some reason, I don’t believe what they say,’ is always an issue in our legal system.”
‘A high barrier’
When a former inmate files a claim, it gets assigned to a hearing officer, who determines whether it should move forward. If so, the officer schedules a hearing and creates a report, called a proposed decision, which is reviewed by the chief counsel and presented to the board. Unlike criminal proceedings, legal counsel is not provided to individuals who cannot afford to hire an attorney.
The board members are state Controller John Chiang and Michael Ramos, the San Bernardino County district attorney. For the past five years, deputy controller Les Kleinberg has served as Chiang’s proxy on the board.
Bill Leonard, secretary of the State and Consumer Services Agency, had served as the third board member from March 2010 until the beginning of the year, when the new administration took office. Leslie Lopez, the interim secretary, is currently serving in Leonard’s place.
Both Leonard and Chiang were automatically placed on the board as the result of their government positions. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Ramos to the board's public seat. Chiang, Kleinberg, and Ramos have law degrees; Leonard does not.
In addition to wrongful conviction cases, the board pays restitution to people who have been injured because of violent crimes. It also handles a variety of other tasks, including money or damage claims against state employees and their agencies – duties that rarely take on the legal complexity of wrongful conviction cases.
In a telephone interview, Leonard, acknowledged that the wrongful conviction claims process is “complex” but said he believes it to be fair. Chiang, Kleinberg, Lopez and Ramos declined to comment on the record, and Leonard would not talk about specific cases.
“We create a high barrier for people to cross, but it’s no more complicated than the other government claim processes,” Leonard said. “I don’t believe these claimants are at more of a disadvantage than, say, victims of violent crimes seeking compensation.”
‘A crime in and of itself’
In an e-mail, Wayne Strumpfer, the board’s chief legal counsel, said complaints about denied claims from former prisoners and their attorneys are common. But, he said, there are multiple instances in which the board has recommended compensation.
Quedellis Ricardo “Rick” Walker is one of those cases.
Walker was convicted of murdering his girlfriend despite forensic evidence collected at the crime scene that matched another man. Walker, 54, was set free in 2003, after 12 years in prison, and was awarded $2.75 million from a lawsuit against the Santa Clara County authorities he accused of improperly handling his case. The board awarded him $409,500.
In comparison to the District of Columbia and the 26 other states with compensation laws, California’s rate of pay lies somewhere in the middle.
Louisiana offers $15,000 per year for every year spent behind bars, with a maximum of $150,000, plus some social services that guide inmates as they re-enter society. Vermont, on the other hand, gives the exonerated a tax-free award of between $30,000 and $60,000 per year, plus 10 years of state health care and other services if he or she wins a claim in civil court.
In California, critics of the system say the biggest issue is not the compensation awarded but the legal hurdles to get there.
“I don’t believe that any compensation statute was meant to place such a high burden on the claimant,” Chinn said. “It’s a crime in and of itself.”