Wrongly Convicted and Forced to Choose: Freedom or Restitution

It appears wrongful conviction isn’t uniquely a Canadian issue. Nor is the problem of fair compensation. Prosecutors in the US are also adopting strategies to keep from having to pay for mistakes.

In this article is the story of Jimmy Dennis, who agreed to a no-contest plea from the City of Philadelphia so he would be released from prison after a wrongful murder conviction.

Since being arrested for a 1991 murder in Philadelphia, Mr. Dennis has steadfastly maintained his alibi and his innocence. But not until 2016 did a federal appeals court tell the state to start a new trial or release Mr. Dennis.

What happened instead, you might ask? Prosecutors offered Mr. Dennis a deal: sign a plea of no contest to third-degree murder and he could leave prison instantly. They told him that if he declined, a new trial would most likely take years.

It can be difficult for some to understand why any person would sign away the right to sue, even if doing so means freedom. But unless we’ve walked a mile in their shoes, as the saying goes, we are in no position to judge. After spending an atrocious amount of time in prison for crimes they didn’t commit, there are several reasons one would want to finally gain a taste of freedom, especially in America where capital punishment remains in some states.

Prosecutors say these types of offers are “inherently coercive when the alternative is staying in prison”. But let’s face it. A deal gives the city a potential “out”. They can wash their hands of a potential civil suit, so to speak. In the case of Mr. Dennis, without an affirmative finding that he was innocent, the city could (and would) later argue, he should not be able to bring a civil suit seeking payment for his years in prison.

These types of deals suggest an emerging strategy in potentially costly wrongful conviction cases: Set people free, but pay them nothing. After suffering such a tremendous financial loss already from being imprisoned, the government would rather cut costs than properly compensate those wrongfully convicted.

Basically, it comes down to this: Sign the paper now and we’ll give you two years, go to trial and the Judge will give you ten or life. I am unapologetically blunt when it comes to my disdain at our criminal justice system failings. Perhaps if nations were forced to pay out multi-million dollar settlements for wrongful convictions, they’d take a lot more care in actually making their justice system fair and efficient.

To read the full story of Jimmy Dennis, click here:


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