Fraud of the Court and Wrongful Convictions
Lawlor: 'Wrongful conviction' deserves legislative spotlight
By: Heather Nann Collins, Journal Inquirer
When James Calvin Tillman, the East Hartford man who spent 18 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit, appears before the state legislature in its coming session to ask for compensation, he can expect a warm reception, a state representative says.
"My sense is, if Mr. Tillman shows up - and I expect he will - the legislature will bend over backwards to be very generous to him," Rep. Michael P. Lawlor, D-East Haven, said Tuesday.
Lawlor, who co-chairs the legislature's Judiciary Committee, is also a member of the state Advisory Commission on Wrongful Convictions, where he made his remarks at its biannual meeting.
The commission was created by statute in 2003 to review cases of wrongful convictions "and recommend reforms to lessen the likelihood of a similar conviction occurring in the future."
Tillman was convicted by a Hartford Superior Court jury in 1988 for the rape and beating of a woman and sentenced to 45 years in prison. The conviction hinged largely on the victim's identification of Tillman - she picked him out of a mugshot book provided by Hartford police.
At trial, the jurors also learned that bodily fluids were found on the woman's dress and pantyhose. And while there was no DNA testing as there is today, jurors learned that the stains on the pantyhose came from someone within a group that includes about 20 percent of the population - including Tillman.
Fortunately for Tillman, DNA testing has evolved.Last year, Tillman contacted the state public defender's Innocence Project, headed by public defenders Brian Carlow and Karen A. Goodrow. The lawyers successfully petitioned to have the stains on the pantyhose tested for DNA.
In May, the state crime laboratory concluded that the DNA on the pantyhose didn't come from Tillman.Tillman, 45, was released from prison in June, and in July the state dismissed the charges against him. The wrongful conviction, a Superior Court judge said then, is "the worst nightmare of any participant in the criminal justice system."
Since Tillman's release, there has been debate among public officials about the need to compensate him for the 18 years he spent in jail.Carlow, who attended the commission meeting, said his office wouldn't represent Tillman in any civil claims he may make against the state.
Currently, 22 states and the federal government provide compensation to the wrongfully convicted, according to information provided to the commission by University of New Haven graduate students. The amounts range from $20,000 in New Hampshire and $1 million in Tennessee to up to $100,000 per year for federal imprisonment. New York and the District of Columbia have no limits.
Lawlor, who is a lawyer, said he has no particular amount of compensation in mind for Tillman or anyone else who may be jailed on a wrongful conviction. More important than compensation, Lawlor said, is the "how" and "why" behind wrongful convictions. Too often, he said, cross-racial eyewitness identifications are incorrect.
Tillman's accuser - who was "absolutely positive" he was her rapist, Carlow said - is white, and Tillman is black.
Police and prosecutors need to "redouble their efforts" to find more evidence than relying on eyewitness identification, Lawlor said.
The commission - which includes Chief Court Administrator Judge William J. Lavery, Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane, academics, defense lawyers, and the state victim's advocate - will meet again in the spring.
Lawlor said the members should plan to address the legislature's Judiciary Committee about wrongful convictions, how they can be avoided, and potential compensation.
©Journal Inquirer 2006