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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Bill calls for benefits for those wrongly imprisoned

Bill calls for benefits for those wrongly imprisoned

Tuesday, November 01, 2005By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau

HARRISBURG -- Pittsburgher Thomas Doswell, who was wrongly imprisoned for nearly 20 years for a crime he didn't commit, came to the Capitol yesterday to urge passage of a law to provide state financial compensation to people wrongly sent to jail.
Mr. Doswell, 46, of Homewood, stood beside state Sens. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, and Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, who have introduced legislation that would provide compensation for innocent people after they are released from prison and expunge the criminal convictions that remain on their records.
The Senate bill, introduced last month, parallels a bill introduced in the House in May by Rep. Mike McGeehan, D-Philadelphia, who said 22 other states already have approved such compensation legislation and Pennsylvania should be the 23rd.
Mr. Doswell said he was wrongly convicted for a March 1986 rape that he didn't commit and was recently exonerated by DNA testing, which didn't exist when the incident occurred. He was convicted erroneously, based on mistaken witness testimony.
Mr. Doswell spoke movingly of not being able to attend his father's funeral because he was in prison, of not being present as his mother grew older and of not being with his son, who was 3 when Mr. Doswell was imprisoned, as he grew up.
Mr. Doswell was 26 when the rape occurred and spent nearly 20 years in state prison before being released Aug. 1.
"I was sentenced to 13 to 26 years," he told a news conference. "It was very difficult for me. I was told I would die in prison."
He said he appeared before a parole board five times and was told he could be released if he confessed to the crime, but he wouldn't because it wasn't the truth.
"I stood on the truth because I believed the truth would one day set me free," Mr. Doswell said, quoting the words of Christ and saying he is a Christian.
He said that when he finally was released from jail, he had no money and "I didn't even get bus fare. No one even said, 'We're sorry for what happened to you, Tommy.' "
Currently, he said, "I don't have a job, a car or health insurance.
"There are many Tommy Doswells still in prison. They need help in order to survive."
His lawyer, Stephen Saloom of the Innocence Project, said that so far, 163 prisoners have been exonerated in the United States using DNA tests, which he said are scientific and much more reliable than witness accounts.
But it's hard for Mr. Doswell to find a job because he still has a criminal record, which needs to be erased so he can get on with his life, Mr. Saloom said.
"When you're released from prison after spending years there, you don't even have money to pay the electric bill, let alone to hire an attorney to expunge your record," added Mr. McGeehan.
Former state Attorney General Ernie Preate was also at the news conference, and said it's important for someone such as Mr. Doswell to have his false imprisonment removed from his record.
"Tommy still carries his criminal history. That has to be changed. When he goes for a job, that will come up," Mr. Preate said.
Mr. McGeehan's bill has two formulas for determining compensation for freed prisoners. The person would get whichever amount is greater.
The first method is that for every day a prisoner was incarcerated unjustly, he or she would be paid the per diem of a General Assembly member, which recently rose from $128 a day to $141 a day.
The other formula equates to the actual wage loss of a person who was wrongly incarcerated. If that person had been earning $50,000 a year and was wrongly jailed for 10 years, he or she would received $500,000 from the state.
In addition, the ex-inmate would get $50,000 for each year he or she had spent on death row.
But approval of the compensation bill is by no means assured. Mr. Ferlo said some of his Senate colleagues "just shrugged their shoulders" when asked to support it. Some legislators fear they could look "soft on crime" if they vote for such a bill to give money to freed prisoners.
Mr. Ferlo appealed to "the religious community" to support the compensation bill for wrongly convicted prisoners.
Mr. McGeehan's bill has been stuck in the House Judiciary Committee for months, but he said leaders there recently agreed "to look at it."


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