In the wake of the passing of New York exoneree William Lopez on Saturday, Radley Balko wrote a column in the
about the need to improve the way the wrongly convicted are compensated. Lopez, who was freed from prison in January 2013 after serving 23 years for a murder he did not commit, died from a tragic asthma attack days before his multi-million dollar civil suit for false imprisonment was set to start. Innocence Project client and fellow New York exoneree Jeffrey Deskovic, who was exonerated by DNA in 2006, helped to secure Lopez’s freedom and told the
New York Post
that Lopez was looking forward to being compensated.
Lopez isn’t the first exoneree to suffer with medical issues while waiting to be compensated. Balko writes about Paul House in Tennessee, who, like Lopez, wasn’t exonerated by DNA evidence, which means that even if he is awarded compensation, the state can stop paying once he dies. House developed multiple sclerosis while behind bars and left prison in a wheelchair. According to Balko, the stalling of the compensation process proves how the system falls short. Lopez’s family plans to pursue his lawsuit. Balko writes:
. . . [C]onsider the Tennessee case of Paul House, who served 22 years in prison before his conviction was overturned and he was released in 2008. While he was in prison, House developed multiple sclerosis. House’s doctors believe the state prison system was late diagnosing him, then under-treated him once he had been diagnosed. While in prison, House wasted away. He left prison a ghoulish, wheelchair-bound residuum of his former self. But because House wasn’t exonerated by DNA evidence, he is ineligible to take advantage of Tennessee’s law to compensate the wrongly convicted. His best hope now lies with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, making House’s compensation more of a political question than a legal one. What’s more, even if he is eventually compensated, the state gets to stop paying once House dies. Which means every year that prosecutors fought House’s release in spite of growing evidence of his innocence, every year that the state kept in prison and under-treated his disease, and every year that Tennessee governors fail to act in his case is one less year Tennessee has to send checks to Paul House.
On top of all of that, unless he is granted some sort of exemption, it could end up making more financial sense for House to refuse compensation even if it’s offered to him. House’s extensive medical bills are currently covered under Tennessee Medicare. But if he is exonerated and eligible for compensation, the new income could make him ineligible for Medicare. For someone in House’s condition, that could end up being a net loss.