Last February, we brought you the story of Douglas Warney, a mentally challenged man who spent nine years in prison for a murder he did not commit after he was coerced into falsely confessing to Rochester (NY) police. He was exonerated in 2006 through DNA testing but was unable to seek compensation because New York’s Court of Claims Act (see section 8B) barred recovery for those whose own “misconduct,” including false confessions and guilty pleas, caused their conviction. Then, in April, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that Warney could sue the state, going against prior court decisions that had refused to allow him to seek compensation due to the existing law.
Today, the Innocence Project announced that Douglas Warney has been awarded $3.75 million by the city of Rochester for his wrongful imprisonment. According to Warney’s attorney, Rochester Mayor Tom Richards agreed to the negotiated settlement, but the City Council must give final approval at its meeting on December 13.
New York is not the only state that has prohibited exonerees from seeking compensation if they falsely confessed or offered a guilty plea. Under California’s statute, for example, the claimant must prove “that he did not, by any act or omission on his part, either intentionally or negligently, contribute to the bringing about of his arrest or conviction.” According to the Innocence Project, however, in 25 percent of DNA exoneration cases, defendants falsely confessed, pled guilty or made incriminating statements. Evidence that these confessions and guilty pleas often occur as the result of outside influences – such as duress and coercion – should raise questions about statutes that disqualify those exonerees from receiving compensation.
While Mayor Richards certainly did the right thing in awarding financial compensation to Mr. Warney, it is important to remember that exonerees need additional support beyond money to help them get back on their feet. In Mr. Warney’s case, for example, assistance with medical care and mental health care are likely very important. In addition to his mental disability and intellectual deficiency (Warney has an IQ of 68), he has also been diagnosed with AIDS and AIDS dementia. For other exonerees, additional forms of social services are needed, including tuition reimbursement, job placement services, and housing assistance. Individuals like Douglas Warney need help facing the freedom that exoneration provides, a freedom that cannot be fully realized without the provision of adequate compensation and social services.
In another New York wrongful conviction case, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other city officials have vehemently opposed compensation awards for the five defendants from the Central Park Jogger case, who were also coerced into giving false confessions. Click here to learn more about their fight for compensation.