How much would 19 years of your life, wrongfully taken, be worth?
According to the state of Ohio, 19 years of Danny Brown’s life is worth nothing.
I’m not talking about Danny Brown the acclaimed Detroit rapper. I’m talking about Danny Brown of Toledo, who was convicted in 1981 of murdering Bobbie Russell. She was hit in the head, raped, and fatally strangled with an extension cord.
Maintaining his innocence, Mr. Brown served 19 years of a life sentence, before DNA testing identified the semen from the crime scene as that of another man’s -- Sherman Preston’s. Preston has been incarcerated since March 2000 for another, strikingly similar murder committed in 1983. At the county prosecutor’s request, Mr. Brown also took a lie detector test -- and passed.
To her credit, Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates dismissed the charges against Mr. Brown, paving the way for his release in 2001. Mrs. Bates didn’t have enough evidence to retry him, and a new trial, with charges dismissed, would gain Mr. Brown nothing. It was time for him to get paid.
Under Ohio law, exonerated prisoners can claim a measly $47,000 for each year served. That’s chump change but they have to jump through hoops to get it. The actual amount received, which may also include compensation for lost wages and attorneys’ fees, is determined by the Ohio Court of Claims in Columbus.
To get paid, Mr. Brown in 2002 had to file suit in Lucas County Common Pleas Court to, in effect, prove his innocence. He lost that decision and appealed to Ohio’s 6th District Court of Appeals, which in 2006 upheld the suit’s dismissal in a 2-1 ruling.
Even if Mr. Brown had prevailed in county or appellate court, the Ohio Court of Claims would have had to affirm the ruling before calculating and awarding damages.
Mrs. Bates continues to maintain that Mr. Brown remains a suspect, making his struggle for justice in the courts even tougher.
Wrongfully convicted prisoners should be able to take their case directly to the Ohio Court of Claims. There, the standard for proof should be wrongful conviction -- not innocence, which may be impossible to prove.
I don’t know if I could prove that I didn’t kill Bobbie Russell.
Nor is Mr. Brown’s punishment over. As long as the shadow of doubt hangs over his head, he will continue to face discrimination. Unemployed and in poor health, Mr. Brown filed another wrongful-imprisonment suit in Lucas County Common Pleas Court this month, but the odds are against him.
As an editorial in The Blade tomorrow will argue, the system must change.