In 1993, Alan Northrop was found guilty in Clark County of rape, burglary and kidnapping and spent 17 years in prison for the crimes. There was a problem with that conviction, though: Northrop was innocent.
Thanks to efforts by the Innocence Project Northwest at the University of Washington’s Law School, DNA tests of evidence finally cleared Northrop, and he was released in 2010. Besides being wrongfully imprisoned, he missed seeing his three young children grow up. Today he owes more than $100,000 in back child support and says he lives paycheck to paycheck.
Under current state law, he has little chance of receiving compensation for his wrongful conviction. He would have to sue on such grounds as police or prosecutorial misconduct, which could be hard to prove in this case: The victim picked him out of a lineup.
Northrop and others wrongfully convicted deserve compensation to provide at least some small atonement for justice gone wrong. Legislation to do just that is moving in the Legislature, House Bill 1341. It should be approved and sent to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature.
If HB 1341 passes, this state would join 27 others, the District of Columbia and the federal government in allowing compensation for those wrongfully convicted for time spent incarcerated. It would pay about what the federal government pays: $50,000 for each year of imprisonment and time spent waiting for trial; an additional $50,000 for each year on death row; and $25,000 for each year spent on parole, community custody or on a sex offender registry. The state would also pay for child support and attorney fees up to $75,000.
Compensation legislation has been proposed twice before, but it could have resulted in payments to those whose cases were reversed on technicalities. HB1341 limits possible compensation to those who have been exonerated, as is the case with Northrop.
The judge who vacated his conviction concluded that a jury likely would not convict him based on the DNA evidence now available. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a prosecutor would even go forward with the case in the first place.
When the justice system makes a terrible mistake, the state must do right by those it has wronged. It can never give them back the years they spent behind bars, or the lost time with loved ones. All it can give is financial compensation. Passing HB 1341 is the right thing to do.