By Katrina Crumbacher
In the past 33 years, 43 Oklahomans have been proven wrongfully convicted and were exonerated. Seven of them were sentenced to death.
Cumulatively, those 43 people have served 435 years in prison.
Andrea Miller, the legal director of the Oklahoma Innocence Project, said the National Registry of Exoneration’s list is incomplete as it does not include the nearly 30 people who were released after the Tulsa Police corruption scandal.
“When I talk about exonerees, I am talking about absolute factual innocence,” she said. “I am talking about didn’t have anything to do with the crime, not there, didn’t do it. I’m not talking about sentencing issues. I’m not talking about guilty of a lesser included offense. I’m talking about having nothing to do with the crime for which they were convicted.”
To better help exonerees find justice in terms of compensation from the state, Rep. Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City, has been looking into Oklahoma’s wrongful conviction compensation laws through the interim study she filed in June.
“The more we understand the impacts of our criminal justice system and incarceration in general,” Munson said, “the more we can do to ensure Oklahoma families do not have to continue to be in a cycle of constant trauma, stress and a lack of hope.”
Under Oklahoma statutes, wrongfully incarcerated exonerees may only make liability claims if they have received either full pardons from the governor or judicial relief absolving the exoneree of guilt. In both cases, exonerees must be considered to have “actual innocence” of the crime for which they were convicted.
Both of those are almost, if not completely, impossible, Miller said.
“In the pardon context, if you pull the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board’s qualifications for a gubernatorial pardon, nobody who has been exonerated would qualify,” she said. “They say you have to have a conviction, which if you have been exonerated, you don’t, and you have to have completed your sentence in order to be considered for a pardon.”
To be considered “actually innocent,” exonerees must meet several criteria.
-They must have been charged with a felony.
-They must have not plead guilty to the offense charged or any lesser included offense.
-They must have also been convicted of the offense regardless.
-They must have been sentenced to incarceration.
And, they must have been imprisoned solely on the basis of the conviction of the offense.
“We have exonerees who would be automatically excluded from this as a result of the guilty plea,” Miller said. “Innocent people plead guilty all the time for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it’s to avoid the death penalty. Sometimes, it’s to avoid lengthy sentences.”
Currently, only 38 states, the federal government and Washington, D.C., have laws that compensate wrongfully convicted individuals. Of those 38 states, only 19 also offer non-monetary compensation, such as tuition assistance and job search assistance, but Oklahoma isn’t one of them.
“I think that there are some big strides being made to having more second chance employers, especially in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, but there’s still quite a long way to go,” said Lynde Gleason, re-entry site supervisor for The Education and Employment Ministry in Oklahoma. TEEM is a nonprofit organization dedicated to breaking cycles of incarceration and poverty through education, personal development and work readiness training.
“If you’ve ever filled out a job application, the application itself asked ‘have you ever been convicted of a felony? Check yes or no,” Gleason said. “That right there is barrier No. 1. That’s hard for a lot of people to know what they should answer because it feels like if they say yes, they’re not going to be given a fair shot, but if they say no, then they’re going to feel like they’re not trustworthy.”
Even though exonerees no longer have the conviction to hold them back, that question found on every job application applies to them. A recent study by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 33% of prisoners released in 2010 could not find employment in the four years since their release.
“When there are employment opportunities,” Gleason said, “they’re not always the kind that are going to pay in a way that is going to support them because not only now do they just need to support themselves, they might need to support their families.”
As of 2020, over 22,000 sentenced prisoners are incarcerated in Oklahoma, which has decreased by almost 9% since the last census in 2010. Yet, studies have estimated that 3-5% of incarcerated prisoners have been wrongfully convicted. By these estimates, more than 1,100 Oklahoma prisoners could be innocent.
During the 2022 legislative session, Munson introduced House Bill 3511 to adjust not only the eligibility requirements for wrongful conviction compensation but also the compensation available for exonerees. However, the bill never made it to the House floor.
HB 3511 would remove the “did not plead guilty” provision for compensation, and instead of the $175,000 cap, exonerees would be eligible for $50,000 for every year they spent wrongfully incarcerated and an additional $50,000 for every year they served on death row. The bill also offered non-financial compensation, such as health benefit plan coverage and tuition-free education.