- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 30, 2005

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — How much is freedom worth?

According to the state of California, $100 a day.

John Stoll walked out of prison last year a free man at 62 after 20 years behind bars. His 1985 conviction on 17 child-molestation counts was thrown out by a judge who said investigators coerced the witnesses.

Now Stoll wants some payback under a state law that allows for vindicated prisoners to collect $100 for every day spent in prison. But first, he must prove to a state board he did not commit the crimes and did not contribute to his arrest.

“If he can do these two things, then he’s entitled to the money” — about $730,000, said Deputy State Attorney General Michael Farrell.

Problem is, Kern County Judge Lee P. Felice did not declare Stoll innocent. He found Stoll’s rights were violated by authorities who used coercive interview techniques on the six purported victims, ages 6 to 8 at the time.

Prosecutors still believe Stoll is guilty, but decided not to retry him, saying they no longer had enough evidence.

“The judge didn’t make a finding of factual innocence,” prosecutor Lisa Green said. “People tend to forget that his own son didn’t recant. That says a lot.”

The Attorney General’s Office has been reviewing the compensation claim for about six months and has yet to decide whether to contest Stoll’s demand. No date has been set for the board hearing.

According to the New England Innocence Project, 18 states and the District of Columbia have statutes that provide compensation for vindicated prisoners.

So far, Stoll has received only the standard $200 in pocket money that released prisoners get.

Separately, Stoll planned to file a federal civil rights lawsuit this week in Fresno, accusing the district attorney and others of bungling the case and sending an innocent man to prison. He is seeking more than $50 million, said his attorney, Laurence Masson.

“This man has huge damages. He lost his life,” Mr. Masson said.

The former carpenter lost his youth, his family and friends, and all but eight of his teeth while he was in prison. His mother did not live to see him get out.

“I could see myself with my wife and child now. I miss that. I see families at soccer games and just miss that,” Stoll said. “It would be nice to have a friend, a companion. That would be cool.”

Stoll — now no longer inmate D15734, but a free man with an IPod and a little flip cell phone, things that did not even exist when he went away — moved to Oklahoma last week to start a real estate business with an old friend.

“I’m going to have a good time. I got my life back,” Stoll said. “I’m free, I’m out.”

Two Innocence Project groups in California won Stoll’s freedom after tracking down his purported victims and persuading them — now adults — to come forward. Four of those accusers testified that investigators pressured them until they lied. A fifth testified he has no memory of that part of his childhood.

The sixth, Stoll’s son, still insists his father molested him. Stoll blames that on a bitter custody dispute with his wife at the time.

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