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Justice Reform: "What is three years on death row worth?"

Alabama’s prison system has been in the news a lot this year, and not for good reasons. Inmate riots, allegations of mismanagement and corruption, and a failed prison building plan in the state legislature have pointed out plenty of problems. The Alabama Public Radio news team has spent the past several months examining what happens as people go into the state’s prison system and what happens when they come out. This week, I examine what the State of Alabama does when people are convicted of crimes they didn’t do. Critics say, not much…

If you had just been released after three years on Alabam’s death row, what would be first on your to-do list? “Well, hug my kids and my family,” says Randall Padgett of Guntersville. “And, see some nature, touch a tree, touch some grass. I think a tree was the first thing…no, I had to walk across some grass to get to the tree…”

Padgett was convicted for the murder of his estranged wife in 1990. He was exonerated seven years later. As a free man, you might think Padgett has every reason to be happy. He’s not…

“Lost my home, thirty two acres of land, my job,” says Padgett. “Probably between me and my family, l probably spent two hundred thousand dollars on attorneys.” All for something an Alabama jury says he didn’t do…

“Oh, it destroyed him,” says attorney Richard Jaffe. He won Padgett’s freedom. In his law office in Birmingham, Jaffe has plenty to say about Alabama’s policy on compensating people who were sent to prison for crimes they didn’t commit. He’s not a fan… “It might as well not exist,” Jaffe says.

We’ll talk more about that in just a moment. First, here’s how Padgett wound up on death row to begin with. It started with a phone call…

“I get on the phone, and called my brother,” recalls Padgett. “And he said there a knife involved. I must have vomited twice, I think.” Padgett’s wife Cathy been stabbed forty six times. Her body was found at their home in the town of Arab. They were separated at the time. Where Padgett made his phone call didn’t help matters. He was having an affair, and he was with the other woman. Prosecutors claimed Padgett’s DNA was found on the body at the crime scene. Attorney Richard Jaffe says there was just one problem with the state’s case “Oh, they botched it…for sure.”

DNA taken from the scene was tested to establish blood type. The result was a match for Padgett. Before the trial, the sample was tested again. The second result was a different blood type that didn’t match Padgett, He thought that alone would clear him… “I’d seen stories of people getting convicted of something they didn’t do,” he says. “But, I guess I thought that’ll never happen to me.”

But, it did.

The jury found Padgett guilty of murder. What’s worse, the judge overruled the jury’s recommendation of life in prison. Padgett says his first night on death row let him what he was in for…

“About midnight, there was two guys talking above me in adjoining cells, I presumed. It sounded like a black guy and a white guy. And finally, the black guy tells the other one ‘let’s sack out, and let’s have a word of prayer.’ So, he said this beautiful prayer, and I thought this might be such a bad place,” says Padgett. “So, the black guy, I guess is trying to get him to end his prayer, and he says ‘let’s have a moment of silence.’ And, the white guy says ‘are you making fun of me, you black S.O.B.?’ and then he starts cussing like a sailor, after saying that beautiful prayer for so long. And, he says “I know where your mama lives and I’m going to have her killed, and I know where you cousin lives and I’m going to have her killed.’ And, I decided this is a bad place.”

During Padgett’s time on death row, Alabama used the electric chair. Lethal injection didn’t begin until 2002. The state never signed a death warrant for Padgett. But, four men he knew at Atmore prison weren’t as lucky. Varnell Weeks was executed in 1995. Padgett called how Weeks’ final hours were marked by a death row tradition. A prison trustee made his way from cell to cell…

“He was collecting a bag full of goodies for Varnell. Like have a party before…candy…people throwing potato chips, candy in there,” says Padgett. “And, I’m thinking, this man don’t want to have no party. They know they’re going to kill him tonight…”

Padgett was set free two years later. “I never figured out whether it was a blunder, an accident, was it on purpose, was it sneaky…I never…I’ve scratched my head on that, and to this day, I have no idea what the reason for it was,” says Attorney Richard Jaffe. He’s referring to the botched DNA evidence from Padgett’s original trial. In 1995, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ruled the prosecution hid those DNA test results from the defense. A new trial was ordered and that jury found Padgett not guilty.

Now, let’s get back to his money problems…

“Randall was doing pretty decently on the chicken farm—and, he lost that,” Jaffe says. “He had legal fees to his original lawyers…the appeal, whatever. He had legal fees to us. He lost the chicken farm. And, he’s never really gotten on his feet, economically, financially…”

In 2001, the Alabama legislature passed the Compensation for Wrongful Incarceration Act. Exonerees are supposed to get fifty thousand dollars a year for each year they spent in prison. Padgett applied in 2003. The state said no… “Not guilty is not innocent, according to the State of Alabama,” says Padgett. “Which, I don’t understand, what’s the definition of guilty? And if you’re not guilty, are you not innocent?”

Apparently not.

A quick check of the Alabama code leads to Section twenty nine dash two dash one six one. That’s the law to pay people for wrongful incarceration. It says the charges have to be dismissed because the defendant was totally innocent.

“It’s very hard to prove a negative,’” says Attorney Richard Jaffe about providing absolute proof of innocence. He says it’s tougher than it sounds… “I see one way that someone could take advantage of it. And that is, if there was absolute, one hundred percent, clear, DNA in somebody, who was in Alaska,” he speculates. “And, you could put those two facts together, and one person could probably prevail under the law.”

And, for people like Padgett, the burden of proof falls on them. Also, it’s unlikely that Richard Jaffe or any other attorney could help argue his case. The Wrongful Incarceration Act prevents any money from a state settlement going to pay legal fees.

Anyone who wants payment for wrongful jail time have to go to the state capitol in Montgomery. Alabama has a committee to hear claims. And, Senate President Pro-Tem Del Marsh is on that panel. He says it comes with the title… “I could put a designee on there, I could walk away with this,” says Marsh. “But, I think we have to give serious consideration to, and if somebody has been wronged, then we as a state want to do to make it right.”

But, along with this justice for all attitude, Marsh says the question of innocence always comes up… “In some cases, we’re told by those still representing the state, that ‘yeah, technically they’re out of here, but we’re not going to tell you they're innocent.”

And even if there’s a legitimate claim, Marsh says there’s another question to be asked before the state pulls out its checkbook… “Was it something that happened on the local level, where the prosecutor maybe, for instance, didn’t provide evidence he should have provided,” asks Marsh. “At what point is it more of a local responsibility, than the state’s responsibility?” And, even if Marsh and his committee members says the state should pay, the legislature has to set aside the money. And, it’s not legally required to do that. So far, Alabama’s track record on this speaks for itself. In the fifteen years since the passage of the Wrongful Incarceration act, only one case has resulted in payment. It wasn’t Randall Padgett’s…

"I'm not asking for a million dollars," he says. "I'd just like to be put back where I was."

Padgett hopes his case doesn’t end up like that one that did result in compensation. The defendant died a year before the claim was settled. The money went to his family.

Tune in for this story tomorrow on "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on Alabama Public Radio...

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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