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Lawmakers advocate for restitution for wrongfully convicted Missourians

Missouri lawmakers heard emotional testimony at a recent hearing on legislation that would increase access to restitution payments for wrongly convicted people.

Bills sponsored by Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, and Rep. Ron Hicks, R-Defiance, would expand a current Missouri statute that provides restitution only to individuals exonerated through DNA evidence.

Under the legislation, individuals proven innocent would be eligible for restitution based on any evidentiary method, not just DNA testing, and would receive an automatic order of expungement from the court where they were sentenced.

According to the bill, exonerated individuals would be eligible for up to $100 per day for every day of post-conviction incarceration, or up to $36,500 per fiscal year. Multiple lawmakers and witnesses expressed a desire for that amount to be raised.

“It’s chump change, really,” said Jeff Stack, testifying on behalf of the Mid-Missouri Fellowship of Reconciliation. “I know that the state is strapped for budgeting, but this is an extraordinary wrong that we have done collectively, and we need to do better than that.”

Several individuals who spoke at the hearing pointed to the case of Kevin Strickland, a Kansas City man exonerated after several decades in prison for murders he did not commit, as an example of Missouri’s need for better support of its exonerees.

Tricia Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project and a member of Strickland’s legal team, stressed the importance of helping wrongfully convicted individuals overcome obstacles such as obtaining an ID and finding a place to live after they are released.

“I’ve had the unfortunate situation where I have walked someone out of prison and straight into a homeless shelter because there were no provisions provided for him,” Bushnell said.

Lauren Sobchak, testifying on behalf of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, read a statement written by Reginald Griffin, a former Missouri inmate exonerated from death row. In it, Griffin spoke about the struggle of readjusting to life outside of prison.

“What I went through and the pain I endured is going to affect me for the rest of my life. Coming so close to being executed has given me nightmares and created enormous problems with adjusting back into society,” Sobchak read from Griffin’s statement.

“I still get passed up for jobs. I still struggle to pay my bills. If you execute someone who’s innocent, there is no going back. There is no reversing that mistake. But if you exonerate someone who is wrongfully convicted, that is a mistake you can make amends for through restitutions,” the statement said.

Hicks and Dogan said the goal of their proposal is to correct the wrongdoing of incarcerating an innocent person and to help them get back on their feet.

Michelle Smith, director of community engagement and outreach for Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, summed up the need for Missouri to do right by its exonerees.

“It’s about justice,” Smith said. “We’re talking about innocent people. So there should be no argument about helping people that shouldn’t be where the state put them.”

The Columbia Missourian is a community news organization managed by professional editors and staffed by Missouri School of Journalism students who do the reporting, design, copy editing, information graphics, photography and multimedia.