- Associated Press - Thursday, March 6, 2014

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - A bill spelling out how Wyoming could compensate people who served time in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence died Thursday in the closing hours of the Legislature.

Under the original version of the bill that passed the Senate, anyone exonerated by DNA evidence would have been eligible for up to $500,000.

The House had amended the bill this week to specify that people who were exonerated based on DNA evidence would still have to return to court to prove their innocence before they could collect payment.

A conference committee of House and Senate members failed to reach agreement on the bill on Thursday.

Sen. John Schiffer, R-Kaycee, is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He said Thursday he was upset by the failure of the original bill, which the Joint Judiciary Committee had endorsed before the legislative session.



Schiffer said that the bill as it left the Senate would have given an exonerated person an incentive, “to get paid for the time they spent in jail wrongfully and go on about their business.”

In order to get paid, Schiffer said, the bill would have specified that the exonerated person agreed not to sue the state.

“With the amendment, they would come back in and it could be anywhere from years to decades later, and have to prove that they were innocent,” Schiffer said. “In fact, they would have no incentive to do that. Their incentive is to not do that, and to go to federal court and bring a civil action.”

Only one Wyoming inmate has been exonerated by DNA evidence. Andrew Johnson of Cheyenne was released from last year after serving 23 years in prison after DNA evidence in the 1989 rape case excluded him as the source and prosecutors dropped charges against him.

Johnson said last year he believed the state should take emergency action to compensate him. He said he didn’t have money for a vehicle, insurance or other necessities. “If I was to walk out of here and die, my people couldn’t bury me,” he said.

Rep. Tim Stubson, R-Casper, served on the House conference committee on the bill. He said Thursday that House members were concerned that people could be exonerated by DNA evidence but not be actually innocent of the crime for which they had been convicted.

“The concern was you could have an exoneration, which doesn’t mean actual innocence, that would automatically trigger an expenditure of these funds,” said Stubson, a lawyer. “And so, what they were trying to do was to say you had to go through this next step and establish actual innocence in order to get these funds.”

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