In late January, Joseph Sledge was found innocent of crimes for which he had spent almost 34 years in prison. Four months earlier, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown also had their wrongful convictions overturned after over 30 years in prison. McCollum spent 30 of those years on death row.
Three men wrongly imprisoned in North Carolina collectively for over 90 years. Most certainly, we the people of North Carolina owe them some assistance in getting their lives back on track. Yet our processes for compensation are uneven.
North Carolina’s statute provides $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration up to a maximum of $750,000. For Sledge, his compensation claim was approved by the N.C. Industrial Commission a few weeks ago. McCollum and Brown continue to wait, nine months later. Why the difference?
North Carolina provides two pathways to compensation after exoneration. One requires exonerees to apply for and be granted a pardon for innocence by the governor after their exoneration by a court. North Carolina is one of only four states that require a gubernatorial pardon to claim compensation. The second pathway applies only to those exonerated by the three-judge panel of the state-sponsored Innocence Inquiry Commission. For these exonerees, the pardon is automatic, and their claim on compensation is fast-tracked straight to the Industrial Commission, the agency that hears and grants compensation claims.
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Once proof of their innocence was finally uncovered, McCollum and Brown chose the first pathway, pursuing their case in court because the process would be faster and their release sooner. In an uncommon move, the prosecutor joined with McCollum and Brown’s attorneys in supporting their claim of innocence. The judge declared them innocent, and they were released from prison.
Sledge’s case took the second pathway when a three-judge panel of the IIC recognized his innocence and set him free based on newly examined DNA evidence that showed he was not involved in the crime. McCollum and Brown had to apply for a pardon from the governor and wait nine months while the governor’s office launched its own investigation into their innocence, while Sledge received an automatic pardon and fast-track to compensation.
We allow courts in North Carolina to convict and sentence our residents
to long prison sentences and even death without additional review and investigation by the governor’s office. Why is a court’s determination good enough for a conviction but not for an exoneration?
In a recent study with Tiffany Merritt at UNC-Greensboro, I found that the pathway to compensation an exoneree takes makes all the difference. For exonerees who must apply for and receive a pardon, the average time between exoneration and compensation is about 28.6 months. For exonerees whose pardons came automatically through the IIC process, the average time from exoneration to compensation is 3.4 months.
Since 2006 when the IIC was established, 10 exonerees have applied for pardons from the governor; five of those pardons have been denied, one is pending, and now four have received pardons and thus a pathway to compensation. In the same period, five of the six IIC exonerees have received compensation on average in 3.4 months.
Joseph Sledge deserves his $750,000. In fact, he deserves much more. While the compensation will help some, it is but a token considering the 12,403 days he spent wrongly incarcerated in North Carolina prisons. He deserves that compensation to help him navigate the emotional, financial and social traumas caused by his 34-year nightmare and to negotiate the difficult road ahead.
Henry McCollum and Leon Brown and all N.C. exonerees deserve that same timely compensation and assistance as well. It’s time for North Carolina to create one, expeditious pathway to compensation for all exonerees. After taking away their relationships, their livelihoods and their dreams, we at least owe them that.
Saundra D. Westervelt, a faculty member in the Department of Sociology at UNCG, is a board member for Healing Justice and for Witness to Innocence, the nation’s only organization comprised solely of death row exonerees.