The state wrecked this man’s life. Now, will Murphy do the right thing? | Editorial

Posted Mar 04, 2020

An innocent man is seeking a measly $200,000 in compensation from the state for his wrongful conviction, and the half a lifetime of suffering that followed.

Yet even that much, he is being denied, somewhere in the bureaucratic mire of the Murphy administration.

Dion Harrell was accused in 1988 of raping a teenage girl. A stranger had dragged her into a parking lot for the attack, and she later identified Harrell, saying she’d seen him once before at the McDonald’s where she worked.

He had several alibi witnesses who said he’d been playing basketball at the time. No matter. His life was ruined. He spent four years in prison and more than two decades as a registered sex offender, jobless and ostracized.

The state finally tested the rape kit decades later for DNA and found him innocent. Still, to this day, it is cruelly toying with him.

The Attorney General’s office has spent the past two years fighting his compensation claim over a technicality. It may even have spent more in legal fees than he is ultimately seeking. Enough.

The state should drop its costly refusal to make amends immediately. The AG’s office argues that it’s Treasury’s call. Maybe. But who cares, really – it’s all under Gov. Phil Murphy, and he should find a way to fix this.

“The Murphy Administration agrees that Mr. Harrell should be compensated for time he spent imprisoned due to a wrongful conviction of sexual assault,” his spokeswoman said Wednesday, adding that it’s “working to assess Mr. Harrell’s case," and also favors reforming the law to compensate him.

Clearly, the clock should start ticking on the deadline to apply for a payout after the date of your exoneration, not your release from prison. After all, Harrell wasn’t exonerated until years after he was freed, when reliable DNA testing was finally developed.

Yet our statute was poorly designed. It bases the deadline on a prison release date. An appellate court just ruled that Harrell isn’t entitled to his $50,000 annual payment because of this discrepancy.

Sen. Declan O’Scanlon and Assemblyman Gordon Johnson are among the lawmakers vowing to correct this, what O’Scanlon calls “a flaw in the simple wording of the law.” They’ve also introduced bills to compensate Harrell for the time he spent on the sex offender registry.

Offering an additional $25,000 for each year an innocent person was wrongly on the registry, on probation or parole will help others too. But Harrell shouldn’t have to wait for the Legislature to act. He’s waited far too long for justice already.

“That compensation would do a lot to give him stable housing, try to get him back on his feet, maybe start a business, since he can’t really get regular employment,” his lawyer, Glen Garber, says.

Being on the registry has crippled Harrell’s job prospects for life and badly strained his relationships. He’s bounced between addresses, and in and out of homelessness. Meanwhile, the Monmouth County prosecutor’s office initially fought his effort to get DNA testing.

“The government has been putting up every roadblock to him being exonerated in the first place, and now it’s saying, oh you didn’t file for compensation in time, so too late,” Michelle Feldman of the Innocence Project marvels.

Another red herring raised by the state: When Harrell was out on bail for the rape charge, he attempted to commit a petty theft. He was destitute and got caught rifling through a car in a parking lot for spare change. It probably wouldn’t have resulted in any jail time if he hadn’t also been accused of rape.

And it shouldn’t affect his claim now, since those two sentences were run consecutively, not concurrently. The state should allow his claim to proceed, then decide what time, if any, should be attributed to the burglary, reducing his compensation – we’d argue none of it.

Since only a handful of cases like Harrell’s exist, the state isn’t risking legal exposure, “other than doing justice in one case that is so crying out for it,” as Garber says.

Here’s the choice for Murphy officials: Waste even more tax dollars fighting this, and prolong this man’s suffering, or just do the right thing – give him his money now, and apologize.

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