Joseph Eastridge and Joseph Sousa were convicted and imprisoned after a 1974 murder in Northwest Washington, DC – a murder that neither of them committed. Now, after a settlement with the Department of Justice, these men will receive $1.9 million in total to compensate them for time spent in prison.
The pair were convicted of the stabbing death of Johnnie Battle and sentenced to 20 years to life. Sousa spent 20 years in prison before being paroled, and Eastridge was locked up for 29 years. Evidence later appeared that the prosecution failed to turn over favorable grand jury testimony to the defense, and that this information would likely have supported their claims of innocence.
In 2005, Judge Rosemary Collyer of the Washington federal district court granted a petition for habeas corpus. She ruled that if the withheld evidence had been presented at trial, no juror would have found Sousa and Eastridge guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. She said, “The court finds that this is the rare case in which petitioners can prove their ‘actual innocence’ of the crime charged as well as violations of their constitutional rights at trial.”
Collyer then granted a Certificate of Innocence in 2009. This certificate permits a wrongfully convicted individual to sue the government for damages. Eastridge and Sousa pursued this course in January 2010, but ran into problems when prosecutors claimed that the pair weren’t entitled to $50,000 a year for each year spent incarcerated but instead $5,000 – the amount legally allowed until 2004. As the pair spent much of their time in prison before then, both sides argued over whether the law was intended to be retroactively instituted.
Lawyers for both sides reached a settlement last week, with Eastridge receiving approximately $1.14 million and Sousa $750,000. This is less than what the plaintiffs were demanding, with their attorney, Patrick Regan, saying, “The government convicted clearly innocent men and then they fought over how much they owe. Even at the end, they were trying to take something from these guys.”
This case shows that even in states that have laws that regulate compensation for exonerees, rules aren’t always clear-cut or easily enforced. After having spent decades in prison, Joseph Eastridge and Joseph Sousa had to continue to fight to receive compensation and, as Regan said, “These two innocent gentlemen spent over 50 years total in the most horrific prisons in the country and the time has come for the government to do the right thing. They lost virtually their entire adult lives while they were imprisoned.” Can $50,000 a year even come close to making up for this lost time?
The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times – Two Men Wrongfully Convicted in D.C. Murder Settle Suit
The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times – Cleared of Murder, Two Men Sue in D.C. for Unjust Imprisonment