This Week in Innocence

Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

After imprisoning a man 17 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Washington state finally sets him free . . . with $2,500 and a bus ticket.

Northrop was arrested for the rape and kidnapping of a housekeeper. “I instantly said, ‘No, you’ve got the wrong guy,'” Northrop recalls telling detectives. But detectives believed the victim’s testimony, although she was blindfolded for most of the attack. A jury agreed, sentencing Northrop, a father of three children under age 6, to 23 years in prison.

From behind bars, Northrop tried to prove police had the wrong guy. In 2000, he contacted the Innocence Project Northwest at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle.

For years, prosecutors denied the project’s requests to use more advanced DNA testing on the evidence in Northrop’s case. In 2005, a new state law gave judges the power to order additional testing. But it took five more years for Northrop’s testing to be completed and for a court to consider the results that conclusively showed another man’s DNA was on the victim.

In 2010, Northrop, still sitting in prison, got a letter with news he thought he might never get.

“I was jumping around the day room saying, ‘I’m out of here! I’m out of here!'” Northrop said.

But Washington state, like 23 other states, doesn’t compensate the wrongly imprisoned.

According to an Innocence Project study, Northrop is among the 40% of exonerated prisoners nationwide who received nothing from authorities for their time behind bars. The report calls for all states to pass laws providing the same compensation that the federal government offers for federal crimes: $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration with an additional $50,000 for each year spent on death row. Today, five states have the same standard.

Money would give Northrop a chance to “just get started over again and have a normal life again,” he said. He works full-time but lives in a small room in a friend’s house because he can’t afford his own apartment.

Even in the states that do offer compensation to the innocent, standards vary wildly. Some pay $50,000 per year. Two pay more (Texas and Vermont), but others less. Wisconsin pays $5,000 per year while Missouri pays $50 per day. New Hampshire sets an award cap of $20,000 while other states set a maximum of $500,000, $1 million or no limit.

But even in states on the high end of the compensation scale, the money is usually payed out in annual installments over 20 years, not a lump sum, and the payments stop coming once you die. Which perversely means that the innocent people who have been incarcerated the longest see less money once they’re exonerated.

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22 Responses to “This Week in Innocence”

  1. #1 |  Kid Handsome | 

    I think the prosecutor(s) who wrongfully convicted him, then fought his DNA testing should be required to put him up for a couple of years until he can afford a small home of his own.

    It’s only fair.

  2. #2 |  Dante | 

    So once again it is demonstrated that the criminal justice system is rife with tragic errors (and deliberate misconduct) and completely devoid of accountability for the people who continue to make those errors.

    Yeah, that’s a good system. I wonder who benefits from such a system?

    Protect & Serve (Themselves!)

  3. #3 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    I think that the prosecutor(s) who wrongfully convicted him and then fought the DNA testing should have all their worldly goods confiscated and turned over to him, and then be crucified outside the courthouse as an object lesson to other Prosecutors.

    On a less fanciful note; given the State’s intransigence, could he reasonably expect to succeed with a lawsuit claiming that his civil rights were violated?

  4. #4 |  Miranda | 

    Also note that in Texas, at least, you have to be declared “actually innocent” by a court. We’ve had exonerees tied up in years of litgation because the court didn’t use those two words. The DNA results, the release from prison, even a pardon aren’t enough.

  5. #5 |  John Thacker | 


    Yes, although I wonder to what degree that’s related and caused by Texas having by far the most generous provision of compensation. I wonder if the states that offer a relative pittance have easier bars to reach.

    Alabama also is a relatively generous state, but it apparently requires the legislature to specifically earmark funds for the named individual.

  6. #6 |  Peter Ramins | 

    You know, for once I don’t really like the focus of the story here. Yeah, it’s crap that Washington State and 23 other states don’t give wrongly convicted people any real compensation, but at least he’s FREE again, right?

    “Prosecutors fought his attempts to seek more advanced DNA testing…” (paraphrased) Of course they did. At least a law was passed that made it easier for him to do it/get it done. It could be so much worse.

    I dunno, I just don’t think the big news here is “guy fucked by state, gets no compensation”, but is instead “guy fucked by state, finally wins freedom.”

  7. #7 |  EH | 

    I’m guessing we’re not going to see an “Alan’s Law” out of this. He should go on the road giving talks like that one-legged guy who ran across the country in the 70s.

  8. #8 |  StrangeOne | 

    Its one of those perverse incentives problems Radley keeps pointing out. If the state offers little or no compensation then it has fewer reasons to overturn previous convictions (even given the “once in a blue moon” frequency they normally have), if compensation is high expect petty bureaucrats to regularly obstruct justice so as not to foot the bill. As Miranda pointed out they will pedantically argue about verbiage instead of giving out a deserved compensation.

    If we made prosecutors directly culpable for their wrongful convictions I’m certain that, given the already insane degree of corruption within the system, that it would just motivate them to further manufacture, omit, and destroy evidence in weaker cases. Civil suits could fix it because it at least puts the issue before the court instead of reflexively punishing prosecutors for errors in judgement like a blanket re-compensation law would. Not all wrongful convictions are done with malice on the prosecutors part, although the general habit of fighting appeals and DNA tests tooth and nail is worrying.

    But currently prosecutors have nothing to loose by fighting to keep innocent people in jail, if they were open to civil suits their desperation to do so would not look good in open court. Hopefully the incentive would be to pursue actual justice, even if only in the self serving interest of not looking like a complete monster by the time their civil trial roles around.

  9. #9 |  StrangeOne | 

    Peter, thats kind of perverse view of things. This was a father of three. They took away 17 years of his life. They took a father away from his kids for the entirety of their childhood.

    This man and several people close to him had their lives ruined by the state. And as far as the evidence presented shows, its fairly certain that he could have been exonerated within a few years of his conviction. The state purposely dragged its feet, not in any pursuit of justice, but simply to ensure that he served the bulk of his sentence regardless of his guilt.

    Guilty? Spend two decades in prison and get tossed out with the cloths you walked in with. Innocent? Spend two decades in prison and get tossed out with $2500. The fact that hes free after nearly serving the full punishment he was given in the first place is nothing to celebrate, especially considering how long ago his innocence could have been established.

  10. #10 |  Personanongrata | 

    So much for justice.

  11. #11 |  John Thacker | 


    I dunno, I think that the real story is “Guy was innocent, gets punishment reduced.” But he was still an innocent man punished, not nearly made whole.

  12. #12 |  damaged justice | 

    How about the annoying little fact that it’s never the guilty parties, directly responsible for the actions, who actually pay money to the victim? Instead, it’s every last one of us who ever pays a single cent of the Danegeld.

    When the guilty individuals themselves are forced to pay, rather than pawning that responsibility off on the rest of us, then we may see some real progress.

  13. #13 |  Misanthrope | 

    He was probably denied parole because he would not accept responsibility for his “crime”. And if he had, if only to see his family, the state would have used that against him to prevent further review of the DNA since he admitted his guilt.

    Nice system you got there!

  14. #14 |  CyniCAl | 

    Ah, the States are laboratories of democracy indeed!

    Lesson: move to a State that compensates the wrongfully imprisoned?!

  15. #15 |  Larken Rose | 

    If anyone other than a mercenary of the state (cop, prosecutor, judge, etc.) lied or committed fraud with the intention of having someone wrongly imprisoned, the person would be prosecuted for fraud, kidnapping, and who knows what else. But when mercenaries of the state do it, does anything ever happen to them? Usually, they get promoted. Sooner or later, if the control freaks don’t at least put up a show of trying to punish crooks with badges, their intended victims might start employing “private justice” tactics. Frankly, I can think of a lot of cops, prosecutors and judges who would deserve it. Here’s an easy idea: any prosecutor caught concealing evidence, or fabricating evidence, in order to get a conviction, should receive whatever punishment he was trying to get for the defendant.

  16. #16 |  Ayn R. Key | 

    You’re wrong, Kid Handsome. The prosecutors who fought against finding out the truth should serve the same 23 years in prison that Northrop just served.

  17. #17 |  SHOES THROWER | 

    I heard that inujustice breeds terrorism.

    Does Al Qaeda and Hamas have a potential new recruit?

  18. #18 |  SHOES THROWER | 

    Also, we should have the address of the lying witness as well as the detectives and prosecutors.

    Spike Lee should have tweeted their addresses.

  19. #19 |  William Anderson | 

    On top of that, the State of Washington hit him with a $100+K order to pay child support. That is rich. The state falsely imprisons him, thus keeping him from supporting his child, and then punishes him for not paying support.

    Once again, we see government officials playing, “Heads I win, tails you lose,” and they always get away with it. Furthermore, Washington is a “Progressive” state where government is “compassionate” and (of course) always right.

  20. #20 |  William Anderson | 

    I do believe that if prosecutors are responsible for wrongful convictions, then they should have to serve the sentence that was being meted out to the wrongfully-convicted person. And if a death penalty is involved, then the charge should be attempted murder.

    Unfortunately, prosecutors in Amerika are untouchable.

  21. #21 |  Pam | 

    what was the $2500 for?

  22. #22 |  steve | 

    if you are arrested your chances or getting off even if you didn’t do anything wrong are slim at best. The whole jury thing is a very imperfect proceedure. I sat on a jury as an alternate last year and in my opinion the plaintiff was not guilty. The dective that did the investagation was lying in my opinion. the jury stayed out less than 2 hours and found the guy guilty on all counts. I was very unimpressed with the whole process.