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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ill. law school poised to help wrongly convicted on a shorter path to pardon, compensation

Marlon Pendleton was released from an Illinois prison in 2006 after DNA evidence exonerated him in the sexual assault for which he was convicted in 1993.

But nearly two years out of prison, Pendleton hasn't been pardoned for the crime, nor can he gain access to the state’s compensation system for those who have been wrongly convicted.

Like others who have been exonerated, Pendleton is caught in a lengthy backlog of pardon petitions awaiting the consideration of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

However, new state legislation intended to speed the process of getting certificates of innocence and compensation to those who have been wrongly imprisoned went into effect last month, and Pendleton may be one of the first to benefit from the change.

The Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University's School of Law is planning to file petitions on Wednesday for certificates of innocence on behalf of four people, including Pendleton, who have had their convictions overturned. They are the first such filings under the new law, which allows people who have served time in prison for a conviction that was later reversed, dismissed or set aside to petition for a certificate of innocence in circuit court rather than waiting for the governor to grant a pardon.

Those who have been exonerated need either a pardon or a certificate of innocence in order to receive compensation and employment assistance from the state.

"The new law will provide much quicker access to compensation because circuit court judges generally act more quickly than the governor," said Karen Daniel, clinical assistant professor at Northwestern University School of Law and an attorney with the Center on Wrongful Convictions. "In most cases, the judge will already be familiar with the facts of the case and can take immediate action."

Daniel hopes to have certificates of innocence for two of the four clients petitioning this week secured within a matter of weeks, as opposed to years. The process will likely move fastest with clients such as Pendleton who have been exonerated because of DNA evidence, Daniel said. DNA generally eliminates any lingering questions over the case.

The legislation, which was initiated by attorney Tom Grippando in the Cook County Public Defenders Office, hit one bump on its way to becoming law. Blagojevich vetoed the bill in August, but the veto was overridden by the Illinois House of Representatives and Senate.

In addition to creating a new way for people to solidify their innocence, the legislation increased the amount of money available to those who are wrongfully imprisoned. People who have spent up to five years in prison may receive $85,350 from the state, up from $60,150. For five to 14 years in prison, the amount is now $170,000, up from $144,849. For more than 14 years in prison, people may now receive $199,150, up from $161,006.

Daniel said it is important for people who have been exonerated to have timely access to that compensation as they rebuild their lives outside of prison.

"A lot of folks have been in prison for a long time, and a lot of them have lost everything they had, such as homes, cars, clothes. They don’t have bank accounts. They haven’t been saving for retirement," she said.

Job placement and assistance is also key for people who have been wrongly imprisoned, as they may have little or no work history or relevant job skills. [Mark Godsey]

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