You have just been exonerated after DNA evidence has proven you innocent after a wrongful conviction. You are now a free person, but you have no money, no collateral…you have nothing. Who is going to pay the years lost in prison, or more immediately for you to establish yourself outside of prison? This is the question that Vincent Moto has yet to have answered. However, resolution may come sooner rather than later.
In 1985, Moto was convicted and charged for the rape of a woman in Philadelphia. He served more than a decade for the charges and was released
after semen found on the victim’s underwear was not his. Sixteen years later, Moto has a hard time finding work, can barely pay the gas and electric bill at his home, and says that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. “I’ve been out for a while, and I’m still struggling, trying to find a way to survive,” said Moto
, 48, of Philadelphia.
“A woman drops hot coffee on her leg and gets millions. I spent 10 1/2 years behind bars for a crime I didn’t commit, and I get nothing. Pennsylvania just doesn’t seem to want to pass a compensation bill for the wrongfully convicted.”
This may soon cease to be the case. Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering following in the steps of 27 other states that have passed legislation to compensate people who have been wrongly convicted of crimes. Under a bill proposed by Senator Stewart Greenleaf of Montgomery County introduced in November, wrongly convicted persons could receive $50,000 for each year they were incarcerated. Says Greenleaf
“If we don’t do this, people are going to file federal lawsuits and obtain judgments much higher than this. This makes it easier to recover (money) and caps what they can have. It’s fair to both parties.”
Greenleaf’s plan stems from a larger bill based on justice reform that was released by a state Senate-commissioned panel released in September.
There is opposition to Greenleaf’s plan of compensation. Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Association said, “There are thousands of crime victims in Pennsylvania. They are having difficulty getting their compensation. We want to see these people made whole. The money is better directed to victims,” Long said. “The bill is seeking compensation, but where’s that money going to come from? Money going to victims is drying up now that the budget is tight.” Carol Lavery, chief of the state Office of the Victim Advocate, said, “A person who didn’t commit the crime should be compensated. I can’t argue against that. If we’re willing to pay millions to people who are truly innocent, there should be more equity.”
Duquesne University law professor John Rago states, “To me, it’s unconscionable to think we don’t have an obligation to help the guy get back on his feet. The irony is that we have more re-entry programs, more support for those that are rightfully convicted and released.” Rago heads the Advisory Committee on Wrongful Convictions, part of the Senate panel.
Compensation for exonerated convicts varies widely from state to state. Wisconsin pays $5,000 per year of wrongful incarceration. Tennessee allows for payments up to $1 million. Missouri pays $50 per day. Several states, such as Alabama, North Carolina and Florida, along with the federal government, pay $50,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment.
“When people get out, they have no resources. No means. No place to stay. If you’ve committed a crime and get out on parole, you at least go to a halfway house,” Moto said. Despite Moto’s frustration with the system, he is fortunate to have a family that supports him. “I moved in with my parents, but they spent over $150,000 in lawyer fees for me. That was their retirement money. My mother is 75, and she’s still working.”
Moto continues to search for employment to establish himself as a free, innocent man, though it is extremely hard. He says, “When they hear about the rape charges against me, no one wants to take a chance on me. It makes people kind of edgy,” he said.
Moto isn’t asking for special treatment. The same assistance that is provided to convicted felons upon release would have been helpful. Here’s hoping that Pennsylvania and other states continue to examine ways to more fairly treat those who have faced wrongful conviction at the hands of the justice system and seek to rebuild their lives afterwards.