Kansas has no law on payouts for wrongly incarcerated prisoners
Oskaloosa — After serving more than 15 years for a crime his brother admitted to in a suicide note last month, Floyd Bledsoe had little more than the flannel shirt and jeans he wore when a Kansas judge freed him Tuesday.
But Bledsoe’s new beginning doesn’t come with a monetary apology from taxpayers. Unlike more than half of U.S. states, Kansas has no law setting forth the monetary value of lost time for those wrongly convicted. That leaves Bledsoe, 39, the options of suing for his own measure of justice — and likely enduring another legal saga — or filing a claim with the state Legislature, a recourse generally reserved for people with no other way of obtaining damages through the courts.
“We can say Mr. Bledsoe will certainly be considering any actions available to him,” said Tricia Bushnell, legal director of the five-state Midwest Innocence Project, which worked with Kansas University’s Project for Innocence and Post-Conviction Remedies in helping free Bledsoe.
If anything, Bushnell said, compensating the wrongly convicted is “absolutely a moral and social issue” begging the question: In the end, “How much is a year of your life worth?”
Bledsoe always maintained he had no role in the 1999 shooting death of 14-year-old sister-in-law Camille Arfmann near Oskaloosa. During a hearing Tuesday, an investigator testified new DNA testing pointed the blame at brother Tom Bledsoe, who killed himself last month and left behind notes declaring, “Floyd is innocent,” ”I sent an innocent man to prison,” and “I raped and murdered a 14-year-old girl.”
Although a judge granted the prosecutor’s request Tuesday to drop the charges against Floyd Bledsoe, Bledsoe hasn’t been formally exonerated. Prosecutor Jason Belveal told The Associated Press he reserves the right to re-charge Bledsoe if new evidence surfaces, though he said that’s unlikely because the key witness against Floyd Bledsoe — his brother, Tom — “is gone now.”
The National Registry of Exonerations, a 3-year-old project of the University of Michigan’s law school, has logged more than 1,700 exonerations since 1989. The registry credits at least part of the rise in exonerations to the spread of “conviction integrity units,” teams that revisit convictions involving questionable evidence.
Payouts to the exonerated vary considerably from state to state, with some offering automatic, set amounts regardless of how much time was served. Exonerated inmates compensated under existing state laws received a median total of $240,000, or $24,000 for each year served, according to the Innocence Project, which provides legal assistance to prisoners seeking to prove their innocence through DNA testing.
Missouri’s law pays the exonerated $50 for each day spent in prison, but only if they were cleared by DNA testing. Florida caps total compensation at $2 million. Exonerated federal prisoners can be awarded up to $50,000 per year spent behind bars and up to $100,000 per year on death row.
While Kansas has no compensation law, suing has proven effective. In 2010, Eddie James Lowery agreed to a $7.5 million settlement for the decade he spent imprisoned for a rape he didn’t commit. Lowery argued that his early-1980s conviction, imprisonment and 10 post-release years on a state sex offender list cost him his first marriage and strained his relationship with his first child.
Exonerated inmates in Kansas have legal recourse if they demonstrate their constitutional due process rights were denied. A law to set payout amounts hasn’t gotten traction.
“I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t look into issues relating to possible exoneration. To my knowledge, the issue hasn’t been raised,” said state Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican who is chairman of the House’s standing and interim joint committees on corrections and juvenile justice. “We might want to take a look at that.”