CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — Men and women who spent years in prison, only to later be exonerated, delivered emotional testimony Wednesday in support of a bill that would compensate wrongly convicted Oregonians.
“There are so many things that I lost because of my wrongful conviction,” said Lisa Roberts, who took a plea deal for manslaughter in connection with the murder of her lover, Jerri Lee Williams, in 2002 at Kelley Point Park. In 2014 a judge said the state needed to retry Roberts, or release her.
“I missed my only child graduating from high school. I missed the birth of my first grandchild. And the worst of all, I missed spending time with my mother before she passed away,” Roberts told Oregon legislators, fighting back tears. “I lost 12 years of my life and my freedom.”
“It’s impossible for most to imagine how difficult prison is, especially when you are innocent,” testified Christopher Tapp.
Tapp spent more than two decades in prison after being found guilty of raping and murdering a woman in Idaho Falls. He was released in 2017. Two years later, DNA evidence identified another man as the killer, according to the Innocence Project. But irreversible damage had already been done to Tapp’s life, and future.
He was left with no money and a felony conviction that prevented him from getting most jobs he applied for, Tapp said.
“Where could I be today if the state hadn’t taken my freedom? By the time I cleared my name, my friends had already built careers, bought homes and established savings,” he said. “I missed out on 20 years of my life.”
Oregon is one of 15 states that provide no compensation for the wrongfully convicted.
Senate Bill 499, sponsored by Republican Kim Thatcher and Democrat Chris Gorsek, would allow a person to recover compensation if they were convicted of a felony and imprisoned and later had their conviction reversed or vacated. The current version of the bill stipulates that the person convicted could not have been an accessory or accomplice to the crime and must not have committed perjury or fabricated evidence. A false confession or a guilty plea does not constitute perjury, according to the bill.
Exact amounts could vary, but the court could award a petitioner $65,000 for each year of imprisonment, plus $25,000 or more for each additional year the petitioner had to serve on parole or register as a sex offender. The award could be paid in a lump sum, at a judge’s discretion.
The legislature has not yet studied the financial impact of the bill. However, Steve Wax, legal director of the Oregon Innocence Project, testified that the bill would place a minimal financial burden on the state.
Since exonerations started being registered in 1989, Wax said there have been about 20 in Oregon. By his estimate, about 13 people would be eligible for compensation under the statute.
The impact on exonerees, though, would be incredibly important, Wax said.
Janis Puracal of the Forensic Justice Project stressed that when you see video of innocent people joyously walking out of prison, the struggle isn’t over.
“Exonerees don’t return to the life that they knew when they went in. That life is gone,” Puracal said.
Earl Bain said trying to rebuild his life has been a constant battle.
A non-unanimous jury convicted the Army veteran of sex abuse in 2009 in Malheur County. According to the Oregon Innocence Project, there were no witnesses or physical evidence. The accuser recanted her story in 2015 and, since then, has maintained that the crime never happened. In 2020, Governor Kate Brown issued Bain a pardon.
“It’s been pretty much just hell trying to overcome all of that,” Bain said. “To overcome the stigma of that wrongful conviction.”
While he appreciates the exoneration, he said it doesn’t fix the harm that was done.
“You lose all those years and go through all that for just a sorry,” Bain said. “What’s the point?”