His conviction was overturned after 35 years wrongfully served. State law caps his compensation at 14 years.

His conviction was overturned after 35 years wrongfully served. State law caps his compensation at 14 years.

By DILPREET RAJU
Capitol News Illinois
[email protected]

In December, 57-year-old Brian Beals spent Christmas with his sister Pattilyn for the first time 35 years.

Beals was exonerated and freed from Robinson Correctional Center in southeastern Illinois on Dec. 13 after a Cook County circuit court judge vacated his conviction and dismissed charges against him.

“In that moment, I was just trying to process how this all happened,” Beals told Capitol News Illinois. “Prison erases your ability to have hope.”

In 1990, a jury convicted Beals of first-degree murder for a shooting that killed a 6-year-old boy and injured his mother in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. He maintained his innocence as he was sentenced to 80 years in prison – essentially the rest of his life.

But last year, new evidence presented by the Illinois Innocence Project prompted a reexamination of Beals’ case. A Judge found the assigned detective had a pattern of police misconduct, and newly enhanced photographic evidence showed Beals was likely the target, rather than the perpetrator, of gunfire.

Beals said he’s taking time to celebrate but is also now properly grieving family he lost while locked up.

“I’m now the second-oldest person in my nuclear family; it’s dramatically different,” Beals said. “I lost a brother, my mother, I lost my aunt, my uncle. They all passed away while I was incarcerated.”

But for those years he lost in prison, Beals’ exoneration doesn’t mean any automatic reimbursement from the state of Illinois. And the journey to get any sort of restitution for his decades of wrongful imprisonment is complicated, and one Beals believes is unfair.

Because of the way the system is structured, Beals’ potential compensation essentially stopped accruing after he served 14 years. A new bill in the General Assembly would seek to remove the roughly $200,000 cap on payments to exonerees that maxes out at the 14-year mark, replacing it with a payout of $50,000 per year, capped at just over $2 million.

Illinois’ compensation practices

The path for most exonerees to find some version of justice travels through the Illinois Court of Claims, where Illinoisans can file claims to recover damages against a state agency or employee. Claimants seeking money for a wrongful conviction must first obtain a certificate of innocence from the circuit court in which they were convicted; something Beals’ lawyers say they see no major challenges in obtaining.

It’s a process that more people are undertaking in Illinois than in any other state in the nation. Illinois leads the U.S. in wrongful convictions, with 531 exonerees on record at the National Registry of Exonerations, which is managed by multiple universities and is the only national database tracking wrongful convictions.

Despite only having about 4 percent of the country’s population, Illinois is responsible for 16 percent of overturned wrongful convictions in the U.S. Over 90 percent of exonerees in Illinois are Black or Latino compared to the nationwide rate of 65 percent. In January, Illinois saw four more men exonerated – all charged with murder in Cook County.

But as the state is a national leader in wrongfully convicting people, it’s near the bottom of all states in reimbursing exonerees for the time they wrongfully served.

Illinois’ current pay structure allows the court of claims to award exonerees at their discretion up to a certain amount, limiting maximum payouts based on time served.

For exonerees who served less than five years in prison, the maximum payout, which has increased incrementally to adjust for inflation, is about $85,000. Those who served up to 14 years can receive around $170,000, and anyone who served more than 14 years is limited to a total of about $200,000.

For Beals, Illinois’ statute essentially dictates that the court of claims cannot reimburse him for the last two decades of his wrongful sentence, due to the 14-year cap. A maximum payout would equate to less than $6,000 per year spent in prison, well below even half of the federal poverty line.

Beals said the current structure doesn’t provide justice.

“There needs to be more attention on this issue,” he said. “It’s not fair, obviously. You’re compensated less (per year) for the time you’re incarcerated.”

Josh Tepfer, a lawyer at the Exoneration Project – a legal group providing free aid to those claiming innocence – said he recently represented a man in a similar position as Beals.

“Francisco Benitez, my client, just spent over 30 years in prison,” Tepfer said. “Now he can only get the same amount as someone who did 14 years, so that doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

For the 373 claimants that have already been compensated under state statute, Illinois has paid out average sums of about $112,000 per exoneree, according to the latest data compiled by Jeffrey Gutman, director of George Washington University Law School’s Public Justice Advocacy Clinic.

That comes to an average of $15,000 per year imprisoned, the second lowest amount per year of all states that have paid out statutory claims to date.

“The way that Illinois has done it has always been unfair to people who have been in prison the longest,” Gutman said.

Illinois’ proposed fix

Last year the Illinois House unanimously approved a measure that would increase statutory compensation for those who have been wrongfully convicted to $50,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment, maxing out at the $2 million cap that otherwise governs court of claims payouts. It would apply to all pending and future claims.

It was one of two bills regarding exoneration that cleared the House unanimously last year, but both are awaiting a committee assignment in the Senate. Those measures – House Bill 1015 and House Bill 1016 – have since been combined into a single amendment to HB 1015. Capitol News Illinois was not able to schedule an interview with the bill’s Senate sponsors, including lead sponsor Sen. Elgie Sims, D-Chicago, despite numerous outreach attempts over several weeks.

The proposed amendment to HB 1015 offers partial-year reimbursement and $25,000 per year awaiting trial, and it indexes pay to increase with inflation each year up to 5 percent.

Should it become law, about 40 exonerees would be eligible for an increased payout in addition to the roughly 20 state claims currently pending in the Illinois Court of Claims, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Gutman said while other states that have upped their pay structures have applied the changes retroactively, Illinois would face a unique challenge in doing so because almost 400 claimants have received compensation over the years.

Louisiana, which has almost 90 exonerees, changed its pay structure in 2022. The legislature addressed equity by allowing prior exonerees one year to apply for supplemental pay at the new rate.

A rigid $50,000 per year would not only be a significant change in pay but a shift of power from the court of claims. Under current law, the court of claims has discretion over the award, only up to the stated limits.

While Tepfer said the court of claims can be “often very generous” within the parameters of the law, it’s ultimately the statutory limits that make the current law unfair. He is supportive of the proposed change.

“It will up what they receive, and I think that’s warranted. I mean, $50,000, that’s a pretty small amount annually…that doesn’t even account for all the mental anguish and time away from family,” he said.

Lauren Kaeseberg, co-director of the Illinois Innocence Project and someone who represented Beals, said raising exoneree pay is about doing what is right. She and Beals spent a week in January in Springfield speaking to lawmakers about challenges exonerees face.

“The state is acknowledging that ‘We got this wrong and here is this amount of money that’s going to compensate you for the time that you were taken and held captive for all those years,’” Kaeseberg said. “We need to compensate people at an amount that is respectful and that acknowledges their worth.”

Other avenues

Those seeking compensation beyond what the court of claims can offer also have the right to sue in civil court. Likely due to the restrictive nature of Illinois’ compensation structure, 473 exonerees have filed civil claims for damages compared to 404 who have filed direct claims through state law.

Still, exonerees interested in receiving pay outside of the court of claims face a more onerous process that can drag on for years and requires a higher burden of proof. These suits usually take place in federal court and often focus on allegations of misconduct, rather than compensating exonerees for time unjustly served. Awards are usually paid out by taxpayers through the parties named responsible, such as county or city police department. Some municipalities, including Chicago, have wrongful conviction insurance to cover parts of the payout.

But less than half of all U.S. plaintiffs who have been wrongfully convicted and sought pay have received any compensation, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. In Illinois, civil suits have a far lower success rate than statutory claims. Most exonerees that seek pay from the court of claims receive it, but only about 30 percent of all Illinois exonerees who filed cases in civil court have won them.

Illinois faces a backlog with almost 279 pending wrongful conviction civil cases, nearly seven times more than the next closest state, New York at 41.

But with an average payout of more than $5.5 million, the 123 successful civil claimants in Illinois received millions of dollars beyond what the court of claims could pay out.

Brian Beals is still waiting to see the outcome of HB 1015 before making any claims of his own.

He should have no problems obtaining a certificate of innocence since the Cook County State Attorney’s Office issued a celebratory news release the day Beals was released. But Kaeseberg said that is not the same for all counties or cases. Some prosecutors, she said, would prefer to not have a case they litigated result in an incorrect verdict.

For now, Beals said he is trying to understand technology’s many advances but is happy to be spending time with family during what has been a “surreal” couple of months.

“I had three generations of family with me on Christmas Day and I’m very fortunate to have that experience, my first Christmas at home in 35 years,” Beals said. “I’m catching up.”

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

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