Compensation for the Wrongly Convicted

The News and Observer reported last week that Alan Gell will receive $3.9 million from the SBI. Most readers probably know the basics about the Gell case: he was convicted of murder and spent nine years in prison, but was granted a new trial after defense counsel uncovered evidence — known to the SBI and/or the trial prosecutors, but not originally disclosed to the defense — that tended to fix the time of death at a time that Gell was in jail on an unrelated matter. Gell was acquitted on retrial, and sued the SBI and others. This story led me to learn a bit about North Carolina law regarding compensation for people who are wrongly convicted. I thought that others might be interested in the subject, too.

The most obvious source of such compensation in North Carolina is G.S. 148-82 through G.S. 148-84. Those statutes provide for the Industrial Commission to award exonerees $50,000 for each year spent in prison, plus job training and college tuition, up to a maximum of $750,000. However, those statutes apply only to persons “granted a pardon of innocence by the Governor upon the grounds that the crime with which the person was charged either was not committed at all or was not committed by that person.” Some recent North Carolina exonerees have received such pardons and have claimed compensation under the statute. (See, for example, this story about Darryl Hunt.) Gell hasn’t received such a pardon and so isn’t eligible for statutory compensation.

Whether an exoneree receives statutory compensation or not, he or she may apparently pursue other remedies. I know very little about the possible civil causes of action in such cases, but other lawyers clearly do: Hunt sought and received compensation from the City of Winston-Salem, while Gell received compensation from the SBI and the City of Aulander. It’s interesting that an exoneree may both receive the statutory compensation and pursue other remedies, especially since the statutory compensation is awarded by the Industrial Commission. In workers’ compensation cases, which are the Commission’s bread and butter, my understanding is that an award is in lieu of, not in addition to, other remedies. As this article observes, it appears that at least some other states have adopted that rule for exoneree compensation. Anyone know more about North Carolina’s choice to allow exonerees to do both?

Finally, as the foregoing suggests, other states vary considerably in their approaches. Some have no statutory compensation at all, while others have much lower compensation limits than North Carolina. Some distinguish between time on death row and non-death-row time. Texas, interestingly, has the most generous compensation limits of all, as noted here, and has made a number of exonerees instant millionaires. Given the many, many stories about athletes and lottery winners who have squandered their sudden fortunes, I hope that suddenly wealthy exonerees get good financial guidance. Alan Gell appears to be receiving monthly annuity payments from his settlement, which probably reduces the risk of a serious misstep.