Settlements: wrongful conviction and stop-and-frisk

I applaud NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer for settling a wrongful conviction case even before a lawsuit was filed. (New Comptroller Stands by Handling of a Wrongful Conviction Case – NYTimes.com.)

In the 1990 through the 2000s, I worked on a number of wrongful conviction lawsuits. After exoneration, when our clients walked out of prison, great joy and triumph abounded. The stories made the news, there were wonderful photos, we all cried, guys hugged their mothers, their kids.

But what happened after the photo ops, this weird kind of celebrity? These were men just out of prison (which, as one client told me, is not a healthy place to live) without any certain prospects for the future except wrongful conviction lawsuits which take years to reach conclusions. So these guys, many of whom have serious psychological and medical  problems (see above, re prison as a place to live), have no money, no contemporary skills (lots of touching and amusing stories in the papers about the first time they encountered cell phones), and there were, at least then, no organizational structure for helping them.

Although there are some excellent non-profit organizations like the Fortune Society that assist released prisoners, their mandates (at least at that time) barred them from helping people who were wrongfully convicted, i.e., innocent.

You may not know this but lawyers can’t give their clients money in any form, i.e., can’t provided advances on future remuneration. It’s a breach of professional ethics. So unless these men have families to give them homes and some financial support, they leave prison without anything but (often exaggerated) expectations. People who have been in prison do not have psyches experienced in suspending instant gratification.

Lawyers who will be pursuing civil lawsuits against a municipality on behalf of these clients do not have social workers or psychologists on staff and can be, if they’re inexperienced at dealing with wrongful conviction cases, unaware of social structures — if there are any — that can help these people find employment, psychological support, health insurance, places to lives.

When I was working on these cases, support systems for the innocent were out there somewhere in terra incognita.

So when Scott Stringer decided to award David Ranta money for the wrong the city had done to him, he was doing a good thing.

The Times article by James C. McKinley, Jr. goes into detail and rationale, especially the economic rationale. The best rationale, though, is that it is the right thing to do. Sharply distinguished from corporations who are in the business of making money, governments, in case you having noticed for a long time, are in the business of doing right — ethics and morality.

And, as Benjamin Weiser reports in the Times, a federal court decision moved the stop-and-frisk cases against the City forward toward settlement: Another Step on the Path to Settling Frisk Cases – NYTimes.com.

UPDATE: When I wrote the above piece about wrongful conviction exonerations, I did not know about Alan Feuer’s NYT Metropolitan section article — wonderful article — “Exonerated. Now What?” which not only goes much deeper into the territory I briefly covered about the depressing experiences of people who have been wrongfully convicted and exonerated, but also answers some of the questions I brought up.

And a big answer to the point I was making about how innocent people who have been exonerated do not have the same civic resources as do ex-cons. Now there is one: Jeffrey Deskovic, a man who had, in Feuer’s words, “done a stint [16 years, in Deskovic’s case] in prison for a crime he did not commit,” took some of the settlement money he received from Westchester County and started a non-profit, the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice.  His foundation provides all sorts of genuinely responsive post-release assistance and a sort of peer group therapy for other exonerated people.

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