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MT House endorses amended version of bill to compensate wrongfully imprisoned

Approval process more restrictive now
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Posted at 3:22 PM, Feb 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-27 01:19:27-05

HELENA — The Montana House on Friday endorsed, for a second time, a bill to compensate those imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit – but, in an amended form that imposes more restrictions on those seeking payment.

Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings and the sponsor of House Bill 92, said the changes do “a thorough job of protecting the state” from paying more than it should, but that the essence of the bill remains.

“It’s a pathway for (those wrongly imprisoned) to get compensation,” she said. “And, it protects the state from having to pay much larger settlements.”

The House voted 88-12 to advance the bill, setting up a final vote Saturday before the measure advances to the Senate.

HB92 would pay a pre-determined amount of money to people who’ve been imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit -- $60,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment and $25,000 for each year they were on state supervision outside of prison.

The House first endorsed the bill five weeks ago, but sent it to the House Appropriations Committee for further scrutiny, where it remained until it was amended and reported back to the House floor this week.

The amendments created a new $700,000 fund for payouts, financed by the state treasury, but also tightened some rules on who could make and receive a claim.

The bill now says any claimant must now show their innocence with “clear and convincing evidence,” instead of a “preponderance of evidence” – and, that if their claim is approved by a court, they must then move to dismiss any separate lawsuit making similar claims in state or federal court.

The amended version also says anyone who’s won or “litigated” a lawsuit for a similar reason cannot make a claim – unless they recovered zero or lesser damages or had the suit dismissed.

Two weeks ago, some Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee questioned whether the bill could become more expensive than predicted by its supporters.

Supporters of the bill have argued the bill would not only help those wrongly convicted, but also prevent the state or other jurisdictions in Montana would paying out huge judgments in wrongful-conviction lawsuits.

Montana has paid only one large settlement for wrongful conviction -- $3.5 million to Jimmy Ray Bromgard in 2008.

However, in the past 16 months, insurers for the Montana Association of Counties paid $6 million each to Freddie Joe Lawrence and Paul Jenkins, who were exonerated in 2018 after spending 24 years in prison for a Helena-area murder they didn’t commit.