Bill aims to improve Ohio’s compensation system for the wrongfully convicted


HB 411 provides $52,325 for each year an innocent person spent in prison

By Justin Wier

jwier@vindy.com

YOUNGSTOWN

If you asked Central Casting for a typical Ohioan, they might send you Dale Johnston.

“He had a 53-acre farm with no debt,” said Bryan Corbett, Johnston’s stepson-in-law. “He had a family. He had a life.”

That changed when police named Johnston as a suspect in the 1982 murder of his stepdaughter and her boyfriend.

A three-judge panel convicted Johnston of the murders, and crowds at the Hocking County Courthouse cheered as deputies led Johnston to prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

“The community was in such a frenzy to hang somebody, and he was a convenient target,” Corbett said.

He spent six years on death row before it was determined that prosecutors withheld evidence that suggested Johnston was innocent.

In 2008, Chester McKnight confessed the crime.

Decades later, Johnston has yet to receive restitution from the state of Ohio.

McKnight is the only person who has apologized to Johnston.

Michelle Feldman, legislative strategist for the Innocence Project, is among those advocating for a bill in the Ohio General Assembly that would alter the way the state compensates the wrongfully convicted and help those like Johnston.

It’s great that Ohio was among the first states to pass a law to help compensate the wrongfully convicted, Feldman said, but the law has become outdated.

A 2014 Supreme Court ruling determined that only those who suffer constitutional violations after their convictions are eligible for compensation, a provision Feldman called “nonsensical.”

“Any constitutional violation that would lead to an innocent person like Dale Johnston being wrongfully convicted would happen before sentencing and imprisonment,” she said.

Kansas will become the 33rd state with a victim compensation law today. Ohio’s is the only one that does not provide compensation for pre-conviction violations.

House Bill 411 would change that.

The bill, co-sponsored by state Reps. Bill Seitz, R-30th, and Emilia Strong Sykes, D-34th, seeks to include wrongful convictions where missteps happened before sentencing. It also seeks to limit the eligible missteps to violations of Brady v. Maryland, which occur when a prosecutor withholds exculpatory evidence from the defense.

The bill provides a modest $52,325 for each year the innocent person spent in prison. Those who go on to receive civil settlements would repay the compensation they received through the bill.

Feldman said this would reward those in Johnston’s situation and prevent events like the $111,846 payout to Frank Davis last year, a man whose cocaine-trafficking conviction was overturned based on a faulty search warrant, not because he was innocent.

Feldman estimated there are about five or six people who would qualify for restitution under the new bill. She thought it could reduce costs in the long run.

State Rep. John Boccieri of Poland, D-59th, said he supports the bill.

State Rep. Michele Lepore-Hagan of Youngstown, D-58th, did not respond to a request for comment.

Compensation not only provides restitution for the emotional turmoil of a wrongful conviction, it also helps people like Johnston to get back on their feet and return to leading productive lives.

“In six years, Dale [Johnston] lost all that earning potential, he lost his farm that was his wealth, he lost all his assets,” Feldman said.

Those who have been exonerated don’t qualify for the re-entry programs that help felons return to society.

“[The current] law is creating more roadblocks than pathways for innocent people to get the financial help they need just to survive,” Feldman said.

The bill made it through a house committee, and Feldman hopes it will reach the floor for a vote this year.

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