A VEXING QUESTION lies at the heart of the wrongful-conviction-compensation bill passed by the state House and Senate in July: what is the value of a person’s liberty? How do you put a price on years of lost freedom?
To Governor Mitt Romney, this is not at all a difficult issue. With quintessential capitalist logic, Romney has decreed that someone’s liberty is worth his or her value in the marketplace. All a wrongfully convicted person has lost in that cell are his or her wages. Or, as State Representative Pat Jehlen puts it, "It doesn’t matter if you were beaten, raped, and sent away from your family. It only matters if you missed a paycheck."
This market-value formula is one of 11 changes that Romney and his staff proposed when he sent the compensation bill back to the legislature last Friday — the last day of formal session. (The governor can return a bill once with proposed amendments; the second time it reaches him, he must either sign or veto.) Over the next two weeks, in informal session, the bill’s sponsors, including Jehlen and State Senator Dianne Wilkerson, will try to iron out a compromise that they hope Romney will agree to sign into law; since nobody from the governor’s office ever discussed the bill with them prior to Friday, they are still trying to ascertain which changes are truly necessary to avoid a veto. A spokesperson for Romney would say only that the bill is "in flux."
The proposed legislation aims to give wrongfully convicted individuals monetary compensation of up to $500,000 from the state. The bill is drawn very narrowly; it follows the examples of several other states, including New York, which has awarded just 12 settlements in 20 years under its law. Jehlen and others have been pushing this measure for five years, during which it has evolved substantially to accommodate concerns from district attorneys, who wanted to ensure that only the truly innocent receive remuneration. Ultimately, the state’s DAs signed on.
Wrongfully convicted people, such as Donnell Johnson (exonerated and released in 1999 after serving five years for murder) and Anthony Powell (exonerated and released this year after serving 12 years for kidnap and rape), would have to bring a claim against the state, meet a variety of requirements, and prevail at trial. Then a judge or jury would decide the size of the award. The bill tells them to consider the circumstances of the trial at which the claimant was wrongfully convicted, the length and conditions of incarceration, and any other factors deemed appropriate.
That’s where Romney stepped in. The "primary consideration," according to Romney, should be "the lawful income the claimant would have earned but for his incarceration." A wronged member of the professional class, then, would be well compensated. Poor, ill-educated people — who, Jehlen says, make up the bulk of the candidates she knows of for the compensation — would get little or nothing. Homemakers and retirees, apparently, deserve no compensation at all. Nor do those who earned their living from illegal means. "We think that on principle it’s pretty disgusting," Jehlen says.
Some of Romney’s other proposed changes are also troubling. One addition would invalidate any claim from someone who helped bring about his or her own conviction — meaning someone who gave a false confession, even under duress. The Innocence Project estimates that some 25 percent of wrongful convictions involve a coerced confession.
We should know within a few weeks whether a compromise on these issues can be reached, or if folks like Johnson and Powell will have to wait until next year for the state to give them a chance at justice.
Fat cats: Act 2
Payback of another kind has been on the minds of Republicans, who have watched with clenched fists as Democratic-leaning "527" political organizations (named for the tax-code section that defines them) have won every challenge to their ability to take in and spend huge sums of money on the 2004 election. (See "The $50 Million Dems," News and Features, July 23.) Now they’re trying to join ’em. At least 10 new right-leaning 527s filed papers with the IRS in the month of July.
One in particular stands out: American Resolve, run by David Carney in Hancock, New Hampshire. The name derives from George W. Bush’s statement, following the 9/11 attacks, that "you cannot dent the steel of American resolve." Carney, a principal in the political-consulting firm Norway Hill Associates, has worked with various Republicans, including Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and former senators Phil Gramm and Bob Dole. He filed papers to establish the 527 organization on July 23.
Carney may run the show at American Resolve, but its two co-chairs — die-hard partisans Grover Norquist and John Sununu — have higher public profiles. Sununu is a former New Hampshire governor and chief of staff for the first President Bush; you probably remember him as the long-time right-wing talking head on CNN’s Crossfire. Norquist, dubbed "field marshal for the Bush Plan" three years ago by the Nation, is president of the pro-business Americans for Tax Reform, which opposes campaign-finance reform and other "liberal lies."
American Resolve’s founders are not shy about what prompted them to form the new group. "Ours is an effort to play catch-up with the left," Norquist says. However, even with big names like Norquist and Sununu on board, the group expects to raise only $5 million to $10 million. The plan, depending on how much money comes in, is to target two or three relatively small swing states, perhaps New Mexico and New Hampshire, where a well-directed ad campaign might help tip a few electoral votes into the Bush column.
Some believe the GOP’s 527 initiative may face problems. "It’s going to be hard for the Republicans to play catch-up," says Ray La Raja, a political-science professor at UMass Amherst. "The money Republicans get is from a more risk-averse group, corporations. They would rather spend their money on lobbying than elections." But Norquist dismisses such concerns. "Whoever is saying that is an idiot," he says, in typical blunt fashion. "Lobbying made some sense when you had personally corrupt congressmen or senators, and weak parties," but today, people in office do what their parties tell them to do. "I can tell you now that if the Republicans win they will be for tort reform, and if the Democrats win they will be against tort reform. There is no more lobbying, there is only elections."
Other right-wing 527s launched in July include the Freedom Works Fund, begun by Citizens for a Sound Economy and co-chaired by former House majority leader Dick Armey and Empower America founder and Bob Dole running mate Jack Kemp; and Fight for Right, run by Republican operatives Adam Tracy and Wade Eyerly. Then there are the Coalition for Smaller, Smarter Government; the Republican Grassroots Victory Team; Families for Conservative Values; the Conservative Alliance for America; the American Values Club; Right in America; and the Hellgate Republican Club — "the conservative version of Billionaires for Bush," says its founder, James Finney, in New York.
One slightly older organization, the Progress for America Fund, debuted in late May. In its first month it took in $2,226,810, mostly from four individuals: real-estate developer and Los Angeles Police Commission member Rick Caruso ($100,000); hedge-fund manager and Bush "Pioneer" donor Paul Singer ($500,000); American Financial Group chair Carl Lindner ($500,000); and Hollywood mogul and Univision chair Jerry Perenchio ($1 million).
An even older group, the Club for Growth, received $3,485,334 in the first six months of 2004. Its most generous donor this year is Arkansas investment banker Jackson Stephens, who has given $475,000.page 1 page 2
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Issue Date: August 6 - 12, 2004
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