When prosecutors dropped murder charges against Adnan Syed, he had already spent 22 years in prison.
“Today, justice is done,” said Marilyn Mosby, the state’s attorney for the city of Baltimore, in announcing Syed had been released.
But for many wrongfully incarcerated individuals, justice isn’t just being released from prison. It often means taking on a new battle to be compensated for lost time. On average, 2021 exonerees spent over 11 years wrongfully imprisoned, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
In most cases, simply being freed from prison after a wrongful conviction doesn’t automatically mean an exoneree will be paid.
Syed, whose story was chronicled and brought to national attention in the podcast “Serial,” was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999. In September, prosecutors said they no longer had faith in the case against Syed, and in mid-October, he was released after prosecutors said DNA evidence cleared him in the case.
In a statement to USA TODAY, Syed’s lawyers declined to comment on whether or how he would seek compensation for his time in prison.
If he were to seek payment, Syed would be among thousands of people forced to prove their innocence again if they want to receive compensation for the time they lost in prison.
The path to compensation often is dependent on state rules. And in some states, being exonerated alone isn’t proof enough — evidence that secured a person’s release might not be enough to secure payment for years lost in prison.
Wrongfully convicted people across the country regularly seek justice in a patchwork of ways. Sometimes, they receive tens of millions of dollars for their time in prison – and sometimes, they get nothing at all.
After spending a decade in prison for a murder conviction from when he was 15 years old, Davontae Sanford was awarded $7.5 million from the Detroit City Council to settle his claims that police violated his rights. Meanwhile in Oregon, Nicholas McGuffin was wrongfully convicted of killing his high school girlfriend in 2000 and spent nine years in prison until he was exonerated by DNA evidence. But he won’t be paid by the state – Oregon is one of 12 states without laws to compensate exonerees.
How exonerees are compensated for wrongful imprisonment
Exonerees face an uncertain future after being released from prison. For many, compensation can help them reestablish lives that have been destroyed.
“Exonerees are often released with absolutely nothing,” said Neel Lalchandani, a Baltimore lawyer who works with wrongfully incarcerated clients. “We’ve had clients who’ve been released with not even a bus ticket to get to a family member’s home. And without state IDs, without health insurance.”
Nationally, 72% of exonerees who file state claims are awarded some kind of compensation, data from the National Registry of Exonerations show. But the amount varies greatly per state – while Texas pays $80,000 per year to exonerees, Wisconsin pays only $5,000 per year with a maximum reward of $25,000.
Thirty-eight states, plus Washington, D.C., have laws in place to compensate wrongfully incarcerated people.
Exonerees can also file a civil rights lawsuit for compensation, typically in federal court, arguing their constitutional rights were violated.
About 43% of people who have been exonerated file a civil lawsuit, said Jeffrey Gutman, a law professor at the George Washington University. And of those who file, about 52% receive a civil award either through a jury verdict, or more commonly a settlement, he said.
Exonerees can also seek compensation through a private bill, although this process is difficult and rare.
Maryland, where Syed’s case is located, calculates compensation by multiplying the number of days the exoneree was imprisoned after conviction with the daily rate of Maryland’s median household income. In Syed’s case, that chalks up to about $2 million.
Under a new 2021 law, the state not only provides monetary compensation but also health care, housing vouchers, and tuition assistance – critical benefits for someone just released from prison, said Lalchandani.
A judge in the case also ruled last month that the state violated its legal obligation to share exculpatory evidence with Syed’s defense, a violation that could be a basis for a lawsuit.
Exonerees face barriers in claiming compensation
Once exonerees are freed from prison, the road to compensation means navigating a sometimes confusing and often lengthy hash of state statutes, difficult legal battles and the mental toll of re-proving their innocence.
State statutes usually require individuals seeking compensation to demonstrate their innocence – being released from prison does not automatically mean an exoneree is entitled to pay.
And some state laws have narrow eligibility for compensation. In Missouri, only those who prove their innocence “solely” by DNA testing can be compensated, at about $36,000 per year. It’s the only such law in the country.
Kevin Strickland was freed in Missouri after spending four decades in prison. But because his innocence wasn’t proven solely by DNA, Missouri owed him zero dollars.
“It’s not fair,” Strickland said last year.
Strickland was convicted of killing three people in 1979 at the age of 19. He was freed after the recantation of witness statements.
“It’s not just me. Society knows that. I’m just one in a million that knows the law needs to be changed,” he said.
If Strickland had been convicted across the state line in Kansas, he likely would have been compensated $65,000 per year.
Exonerees often spend years, or decades, in prison before they’re released, and that gap in time can prove difficult when revisiting a case.
Witnesses who could offer testimony may have passed away or critical documents could have been destroyed or not maintained.
“Sometimes it’s just difficult to prove that you didn’t do something, even though that’s 100% the truth,” Lalchandani said. “So I think really the passage of time in these cases presents the practical barrier to someone proving their innocence.”
Civil rights lawsuits can take even more resources and time to pursue – up to five years, according to Lalchandani. Exonerees must prove a high legal standard, and even if they win their case, their payment can be held up or overturned in an appeal.
“There’s all sorts of legal barriers that have been erected to make civil rights lawsuits very challenging and very costly to pursue,” he said.
And exonerated individuals who pursue a lawsuit must go through the process of putting themselves on trial – again. That process can be mentally racking, said Shawn Armbrust, Executive Director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.
“As the wrongfully convicted person, you have to go through a lot of psychological stuff to deal with one of these lawsuits,” Armbrust said. “You have to assume that whoever’s defending the police will say that you’re guilty. And you have to assume that they’re going to find ways of alleging that you’ve engaged in some kind of conspiracy to fraudulently prove that you are innocent.”
But for some, the lengthy process pays off: on average, successful federal civil rights cases result in much higher compensation than state statute awards – between four and five times greater per year of incarceration, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Last year, a jury in a North Carolina federal civil rights case awarded $75 million to two intellectually disabled half brothers who spent decades behind bars after being wrongfully convicted in the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl.
That award was almost five times the total amount of compensation the state of North Carolina has given exonerees, according to data from the registry, and state law has a cap of $750,000 per person.
National exoneration trends
According to data from the National Registry of Exonerations, the number of exonerated prisoners has grown rapidly within the last decade. Since 1989, more than 3,000 Americans have been exonerated, and over half of those exonerations have taken place since 2012.
In recent years, dedicated units — called conviction integrity units — within a prosecutor’s office that reinvestigate old cases have appeared nationwide. Since 2012, Baltimore has exonerated 15 people through its unit.
And most states with exoneree compensation laws have either passed or amended their legislation within the past 10 years – laws that tend to have bipartisan support, according to Gutman.
“I think wrongful convictions have captured the public attention over the last decade or two in a real tangible way,” he said.