The Price of Time: Why compensation for Alabama's wrongfully inc - WBRC FOX6 News - Birmingham, AL

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The Price of Time: Why compensation for Alabama's wrongfully incarcerated remains elusive

In 2007 Antonio Williams was wrongly convicted of child rape and sent to prison. Almost five years later he was exonerated and freed. In 2015 a legislative committee said Alabama owed him $213,000. So why hasn't he received the money? 


BIRMINGHAM, Ala (WBRC) - Four years, nine months and 19 days. That’s how long Antonio Williams was locked up for a heinous crime he did not commit. Williams, 49, said faith got him through the unthinkable nightmare of being wrongfully arrested, convicted and incarcerated in the rape of a young girl. 

“I ain’t gonna lie, I was going to commit suicide,” he said. “It was only the grace of God through his son Jesus that kept me alive.” 

In 2007, a jury convicted Williams of rape and sex abuse of a child and a judge sentenced him to life in prison. The case against him was based exclusively on testimony from the victim who later changed her story. Almost five years after he was found guilty and locked away, the court reversed the conviction and Williams was released, a free but broken man.

I can’t imagine how he survived for five years with no hope of getting out, knowing that he didn’t do it." - Roger Appell, Antonio Williams Attorney

“The pain is still not gone,” Williams said, describing how he’s struggled to put his life back together. “I’m still trying my best not to let this get to me.” 

Attorney Roger Appell wanted to help Williams after hearing about his ordeal. Appell had been involved in several exonerations and said the injustice in Williams' case was the worst he’s ever seen. 

“He went through absolute hell,” Appell said. “No one is worse in a prison than a child molester. I can’t imagine how he survived for five years with no hope of getting out, knowing that he didn’t do it,” he said. 

In 2013, Appell helped Williams apply for relief from the state of Alabama. Under Alabama law, a wrongfully incarcerated person who can prove actual innocence can apply for compensation of $50,000 for each year they spent behind bars. Williams submitted his application, along with a letter from former Jefferson County District Attorney Brandon Falls, who called his case “a failure of the criminal justice system.” 

Alabama’s Division of Risk Management determined that Williams met the eligibility criteria for compensation and in 2015, the 9-member Legislative Committee on Compensation for Wrongful Incarceration voted to certify that Williams receive the maximum amount allowed under state law: $213,289.38. 

Since then, Williams has only received a fraction of the money. In 2016, the state paid him $25,000 and this year, he hasn’t received a dime. 

“The only explanation we get is there's just no money to give to him, there's no money in the budget," Appell said. “But the state has a moral duty,” he continued. “This man needs to be compensated for the time he spent in prison.” 

What makes Williams' case for compensation especially compelling is the unlikely event that happened just four months after he was released from prison. In December 2011, Williams witnessed a murder from the window of his apartment. Instead of avoiding police, he called them and reported what he’d seen and heard. Instead of refusing to work with prosecutors, he testified for them, delivering justice for the victim. Despite his own mistreatment, Williams helped the very office that had let him down. The other witnesses to the crime refused to cooperate and avoided police.

A letter of recommendation to the Legislative Committee written by Jefferson County Deputy District Attorney Joe Hicks detailed the vital role Williams played in making the community a safer place. 
    
“It is fair to say that without Mr. Williams efforts the cases would have fallen apart,” Hicks wrote. “While Antonio has been treated extremely unfair by our criminal justice system, he was essential in the prosecution of three dangerous killers. Antonio stands out as a shining example of good citizenship. I can think of no one more deserving of your consideration,” he wrote.   

Appell said Williams' track record of doing the right thing, despite his own horrible experience, makes the state’s failure to pay him the full amount particularly shameful. 

“I’d rather have my life back than have the money,” Williams said. “All this is nothing but the work of the devil and his demons.” 

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ALABAMA’S LAW  

In 2001, Alabama passed a state law creating a uniform process that's supposed to compensate victims of injustice. 

To qualify for compensation, a person who has been wrongfully incarcerated must show absolute innocence. Appell explained that proving a conviction was 100% wrong is extremely difficult, usually achieved only through DNA evidence, a new confession or in Williams' case, a victim who recants her testimony. 

“It’s almost impossible to do,” Appell said. 

Once the application passes muster with the Division of Risk Management in Alabama’s Department of Finance, the Legislative Committee on Compensation for Wrongful Incarceration conducts a hearing and votes on whether to certify the recommended amount. 

“In Antonio’s case, we’ve gone through those two steps,” Appell explained. “It’s that third step that’s the problem, actually getting the legislature to pay him the money.” 

We examined the law to figure out how the state can both determine that Williams is owed compensation, yet fail to pay him the money he is owed. It turns out, Alabama’s statute makes any compensation contingent on the legislature appropriating the money out of the general fund budget, even after the Committee has certified a compensation amount.

In Williams case that meant the $213,000 he thought was coming amounted to little more than a suggestion by the Committee, subjected to the politics and budget battles of Montgomery. The legislature allocated $25,000 toward his relief in 2016, but this year it came up short. Appell plans to lobby for Williams to get paid once again in the 2018 legislative session. 

State Representative Steve Clouse, R-Dale County, is chairman of the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee, and by virtue of the statute, has served as chairman of the Legislative Committee on Wrongful Incarceration for two years. He said he believes Williams should be paid, but payment comes down to whether or not funds are available. 

“If we had more money, we could fulfill these obligations and we wouldn’t be having this discussion right now,” Clouse said. 

In 2016, Jeffrey S. Gutman, Professor of Clinical Law at George Washington University Law School, published a lengthy examination of how states handle compensation for the wrongly convicted. Gutman wrote that delays in compensation can be devastating to exonerees and arise when a statute includes a “cumbersome” legislative process. 

“In sum, most of these statutes reflect a begrudging rather than a restorative approach to remedying the harm done,” Gutman wrote. 

Even so, there has been progress on the issue. 32 states and the District of Columbia now have compensation laws on the books, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Compensation rates range from $5000 per year of incarceration in Wisconsin to $80,000 a year in Texas. Alabama’s $50,000 a year is in line with federal guidelines. 

It’s difficult to determine exactly how many people across the nation have been compensated, but Gutman’s study of 1,900 exonerees found 39% received some form of compensation. This dovetails with figures from the Innocence Project, which reported around one-third of DNA exonerations result in compensation. In other words, despite more state laws addressing wrongful conviction, most people who experience the unlucky misfortune of being wrongly jailed or imprisoned never obtain any money as a result.

ALABAMA’S RECORD ON COMPENSATION

A spokesperson for Alabama’s Department of Finance confirmed since 2000, only four claims have been awarded compensation. 

The largest award went to Freddie Lee Gaines for $1 million, but his claim predated the 2001 statute. Gaines was represented by Roger Appell, who convinced the legislature to pass an individual compensation bill after Gaines served 13 years for a murder in which someone else eventually confessed. Part of the state law that followed the payout to Gaines capped future payments for wrongful incarceration at $50,000 per year.

The next award was posthumously granted to the estate of Robert Doyle for approximately $229,000. Doyle served 2 years and 7 months in prison after being convicted of sexually abusing his daughters during a custody battle with his ex-wife. The case was overturned and Doyle was released, but he died before he received compensation. Doyle’s widow, Donna Singleton, currently serves as executive director of the Alabama Justice Ministries Network, a prison ministry Doyle founded before passing away. 

If it had been me, I would have been bitter," - Donna Singleton, Robert Doyle's Widow 

“It was horrendous, having lived through it all,” Singleton said. She described the myriad health problems Doyle endured from the stress, including three heart attacks he suffered while his case wound its way through the courts. 

“The money didn’t even begin to cover the expenses, both medical and legal,” she said. “If it had been me, I would have been bitter, but Bob was not that type of person." 

The last two compensation awards have only been partially paid, according to the legal division of Alabama’s Department of Finance. That includes Antonio Williams, and Joseph Michael Littleton, who was awarded approximately $177,000 in 2016 after he was jailed pre-trial from 2006-2010 on a rape charge. Littleton was released when the grand jury declined to indict him, but so far, just like Williams, he’s only received one payment of $25,000. 
    
The Department of Finance said a total of 47 claims for compensation have been filed with the Committee, which means the vast majority of the wrongfully incarcerated in Alabama have received nothing. Advocates for compensation say even when there’s no misconduct in a wrongful conviction, the state has a moral obligation to right a wrong. The wrongly incarcerated can suffer serious emotional, psychological and physical harm. They can also need assistance with housing, education, employment, as well as social and family dynamics. 

Perhaps the most high-profile exoneration in Alabama is that of Anthony Ray Hinton. In 2015, Hinton was released from prison after spending almost 30 years on death row for two murders he did not commit. Hinton’s attorney Bryan Stevenson with Equal Justice Initiative won his freedom after new testing on the suspected murder weapon revealed it was not used in the crime.

Alabama has not apologized to Hinton for the three decades he lost and a bill to compensate him for that time did not make it out of committee last year. Hinton said he plans to go back to the legislature in 2018, but has chosen forgiveness as the best way to heal

“I would prefer to walk around with a free spirit than have this hatred that I once had, so forgiveness has helped me,” he said.

THE CASE OF ANTONIO WILLIAMS 

Forgiveness has been difficult for Antonio Williams to achieve, but it’s no wonder. His wrongful incarceration could have been overturned years earlier if the adults involved would have done the right thing.

While in prison, Williams lost contact with his young daughter and his father passed away. He filed numerous unsuccessful appeals with former Jefferson County Circuit Judge Gloria Bahakel, who presided over his trial. 

“I just wanted to give up because I thought I would never get out,” Williams said. 

His luck finally changed in 2011 when the victim in his case told a counselor at the Prescott House Children’s Advocacy Center that Williams was innocent of the crime, and the real perpetrator had threatened her if she told the truth. The Prescott House passed the information on to the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office, which contacted Jefferson County Circuit Judge Stephen C. Wallace, who had replaced Bahakel after defeating her in an election. 

Judge Wallace appointed an attorney to represent Williams and held an evidentiary hearing, calling witnesses back to court in an effort to fully examine the newly discovered evidence. The result was unprecedented; the case against Williams completely fell apart.

 I just wanted to give up because I thought I would never get out,” - Antonio Williams

The court found that not only had the victim fully recanted the allegations against Williams, she told her stepmother shortly after the trial that Williams had not committed the crime, but that information was not shared with police. Testimony revealed the stepmother shared the information with the victim’s mother and father, but they too sat on the truth while Williams sat in prison. 

Calling it “an extraordinary remedy,” Judge Wallace set aside and reversed the conviction, writing in the order “there is no evidence before this Court that indicates these charged acts were committed by the defendant.” 

“There is a great likelihood that had this information been known, the defendant would not have been convicted and thus serving a life sentence,” Wallace wrote. “The Court is hopeful that the true perpetrators will be brought to justice. Regardless, in the interim, it is the Court’s duty to correct the injustice committed here.” 

Williams remembered it as a “great day,” but he was so unprepared to suddenly be released that he left the Jefferson County jail on foot and walked several miles to a friend’s house, who served him the first home-cooked meal he’d eaten in years. 

Williams credits a few loyal friends who never doubted his innocence, along with the kindness of strangers in helping him start over. He’s currently the resident manager at a Birmingham apartment complex and still hoping to repair the relationship with his daughter, but so far that hasn’t happened. 

“If I could go back in time, I would,” Williams said. “It took five years of my life and with everything that I missed out on, that’s hard.” 

2016 was a record year for exonerations. 166 were reported around the country and of those, 24 involved convictions of sexual assault. The National Registry of Exonerations reported that child sex abuse exonerations were far more likely than other crimes to involve victims or witnesses recanting. In a 2013 study, 52% of overturned child sex abuse cases involved at least one recantation. 
 
Appell said he wished he could get a million dollars for Antonio Williams, but the full $213,000 owed to him by Alabama would help him move on and improve his life. He believes the state should set aside a lump sum in an interest-bearing account for people like Williams, to avoid a delay in compensation, which can feel like more undeserved punishment inflicted on a person who’s done nothing wrong. 

"It could be you or anybody else that gets wrongly accused of something," said Appell. "At some point in time there is a moral fiber in this state that says we messed up and we ruined this man's life, we've got to compensate him." 

For Antonio Williams, patience has helped him endure much worse. He’ll continue to wait and keep faith that the state of Alabama will eventually deliver on its promise. 

“I was innocent and I just pray to God, I hope this don't happen to nobody else," he said. 

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