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MT House panel advances bill to compensate wrongfully imprisoned

Posted at 4:58 PM, Jan 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-15 20:40:26-05

HELENA — A bill to compensate those who’ve been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned in Montana was unanimously approved Friday by a House committee.

The action by the House Judiciary Committee sends House Bill 92 to the full House, likely next week, for debate and a vote.

The panel’s chairman, Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings, said the measure is the least the state should do, to try to repay those who’ve been convicted and imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit.

“We held them incarcerated, for however long – 10, 12, 15, 20 years,” he said, referring to one of the men who could be eligible for the compensation. “We owe them something. And for them to have to wait to sue is why we’re bringing this bill – so we can get them quicker money, so they can live and not have to live on the street, be homeless, or whatever.”

Under the bill, people who’ve been convicted and then later exonerated can file a claim in state District Court. If the judge finds the person qualifies, they would be paid $60,000 a year for every year they spent in prison and $25,000 a year for every year they spent on parole or probation, under state supervision.

They could still sue the state for damages, but if they win the lawsuit, they’d have to repay the state any of the compensation they received, that is less than the lawsuit award.

Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, the sponsor of the bill, said the bill is the right thing to do and should help the state save money in the long run, by potentially pre-empting expensive lawsuits.

“I think it’s important for us to do our duty to those folks,” she said. “It was through no fault of theirs, that mistakes were made. We should have some reasonable plan, some process, that we can use on a regular basis.”

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Cody Marble (left) of Conrad, exonerated on a rape conviction after 14 years in the Montana prison system, speaks last year before an interim committee drafting a bill to compensate those wrongly convicted. He's the first person to file a claim under the new law.

Cody Marble of Conrad, who spent 14 years in prison or on parole before he was exonerated on a 2002 conviction for a rape he says never happened, testified in favor of the bill last week.

“What would I be today, if the state hadn’t taken my freedom?” he said. “By the time I cleared my name at the age of 32, my friends had already built careers, bought homes and started families. When I was finally exonerated, I had to start from scratch.”

Marble has sued Missoula County and others for damages, but it’s been two years since he filed the case, and it’s still in its beginning stages, he said.

“There is a long road ahead, and I am left financially insecure and taxpayers are left covering years of court costs and a potentially unlimited award if I win,” Marble said.

Some committee members tried to amend the bill Friday, to prevent those who file claims from filing separate lawsuits in state court, or to increase the amount of money they’d have to repay. Both amendments went down to defeat.