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For the exonerated, compensation is a battle for stability and dignity

Malcolm Alexander (left) and Frederick Clay (right) each spent decades in prison for crimes they did not commit.
Innocence Project New Orleans; Angela Rowlings/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images
Malcolm Alexander (left) and Frederick Clay (right) each spent decades in prison for crimes they did not commit.

Malcolm Alexander's dog, Innocent, is a reminder of the truth he has always believed in: his innocence.

The two have been together since Alexander was serving a prison sentence for a crime he didn't commit. A fellow inmate's dog had puppies, and Alexander was allowed to keep one.

Alexander ended up spending nearly 38 years in a cell, maintaining his innocence the entire time. Eventually, he got legal counsel from the Innocence Project, who helped find the DNA evidence that finally cleared him of the crime. Alexander's sentence was overturned in 2018, and he is now fighting the state to receive financial compensation for the decades he lost.

Currently, 38 states plus the District of Columbia have statutes to compensate exonerees for their wrongful convictions, but the process can take years and varies across states. The National Registry of Exonerations estimates about 41 percentof those who have sought compensation through the states have been paid.

For Alexander, enduring yet another legal process is about more than the money. After all, he found a job about six months after being released, and his now-wife works too.

"It proves to be a full apology," he said.

It is also about rebuilding his life and having flexibility. Alexander was 20 years old when he was arrested. Now, at 63, he is living in a changed society, with a new economy and new technologies.

"You have to look at the fact that we [were taken] out of society, that is where you have an opportunity to grow in life, to do something with yourself, you know what I'm saying? And here I am placed in an institution where my life, my prosperity have been completely halted," Alexander said.

He wants to be able to use money for emergencies, and give his dog a groom and a new house.

Malcolm Alexander is fighting the state of Louisiana for financial compensation for the decades he lost. He would use part of that money to build his dog, Innocent, a new house.
/ Innocence Project New Orleans
Innocence Project New Orleans
Malcolm Alexander is fighting the state of Louisiana for financial compensation for the decades he lost. He would use part of that money to build his dog, Innocent, a new house.

"I built her dog house, and I must have not built it too sturdy because we just had that storm up here, [Hurricane] Ida, and it blew the dog house."

He said he would use some of his compensation money to buy bricks for a new dog house.

But it's still uncertain if he will ever receive money from the state. Earlier this year, a trial judge denied his initial claim for compensation. He appealed that decision and a new one is expected in the next few months, according to his attorney.

A long and winding road for many

Frederick Clay has walked this road before. He also spent close to 38 years in prison for a wrongful conviction; he was released and exonerated in 2017. His story differs from Malcolm Alexander's in one key way: after lawsuits and years of waiting, he received $1 million from the state of Massachusetts in 2019 - some of which went to his lawyers.

"Even though [the state] recognized that I didn't receive a fair trial and I was exonerated, the state did not automatically give me money," Clay said. "I had to work. I had to also file a lawsuit. And [with that lawsuit] it took time for it to go through its process and for me to receive compensation."

Before winning the lawsuit, Clay had a job and received financial help through a GoFundMe. Lawyers, friends and relatives also helped him sustain himself, but he recognizes that not every exoneree has that kind of support.

Compensation would give exonerees more stability and independence, "whether people want to get into an apartment or buy a condo, or buy a car, or get an education," Clay said.

How someone gets compensated, and how much money they receive, mostly depends on each state. There are three paths to financial compensation. Clay pursued the two most common: state statutes and federal civil rights lawsuits.

Vanessa Potkin, director of special litigation at the Innocence Project, said state statutes require exonerees to prove – once again – that they are innocent, and some states limit the amount that can be paid. Potkin was the attorney who worked on Malcolm Alexander's case.

"Some states like New York have no cap, and the amount is assessed by the court," she said. "In other states, like Louisiana, the maximum amount that a person can recover is set, so there's a cap of $400,000."

That means that $400,000 would be the maximum amount that Malcolm Alexander could receive from the state of Louisiana for the 38 years he spent in prison, if he wins his lawsuit. In Alexander's case, this is the only available path.

For others, a federal civil rights lawsuit may result in financial compensation of millions of dollars, given the right context. According to Jeffrey Gutman, a professor of clinical law at the George Washington University Law School, it hinges on demonstrating wrongdoing from a government entity. Gutman is also a special correspondent with the National Registry of Exonerations, which tracks information about exonerees in the U.S.

"The theory being that a government agency and or a governmental actor ... it could be a prosecutor, it could be a police officer, a forensic scientist; it runs the gamut – acted in a manner that was unconstitutional," he said. "That unconstitutional misconduct caused the wrongful conviction."

Gutman said a federal civil rights claim can be filed in any state. However, some states allow exonerees to pursue only one compensation method. Other states allow both, and in states where there is no statute, a federal claim is the path forward.

The third method of getting compensation is a private bill passed in state legislatures, but, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, this is the rarest method because it requires strong advocacy to legislators and compelling stories that gather public attention.

Sharing strength and hope

Both Clay and Alexander have this to say to people who may still be incarcerated for crimes they didn't commit: don't give up.

"Because you got to understand, you didn't do it," Alexander said. "And you have family members who believe in the fact that you didn't do it. You have friends who believe in it. You have a community that believes in it. It's just that the justice system just doesn't work all the time properly. And you being innocent proves that."

After being released, Alexander got married to his high school sweetheart. His son and grandson – both named Malcolm, along with a new great grandson - were waiting for him. He said giving up on one's innocence isn't just about giving up on oneself.

"You're giving up on your family, because you are not the only one that's incarcerated. They have incarcerated your family," he said. "So you fight, you fight and you fight, not just for you. You fight for your family. You fight to get back to your loved one. You know, you fight. You show that, 'no, [they] are wrong'."

Clay added that victims' families should also be more involved when someone is being convicted of a crime, or years later, if it turns out the conviction was wrong.

In his view, a wrongful conviction damages both sides.

"Not only the perpetrator – me or [Malcolm Alexander], or anybody else. Not only were we lied on. The victim's family was also lied to." he said.

Beyond forgiveness and stability, a reminder of freedom

Malcolm Alexander and Frederick Clay both spoke with All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro in December. Having been through this process before, Clay had some advice for Alexander and others pursuing compensation: "You got to have all your legal documents, everything, in order to prove that you're innocent, that you was wrongfully convicted."

Clay also recommends getting in touch with the district attorneys in one's state because it helped him win his case. After all that, if the money is awarded, he says, hire a financial adviser.

Should he receive compensation, Alexander plans to use some of that money to build a new house for his dog, Inn. Clay, on the other hand, treated himself to an activity a little more unconventional, one he had tried just after being released: skydiving.

"It made me feel like I was totally free," he said.

The first time he skydived, he did it for that feeling of freedom, but also for some of the men he had spent time in prison with.

"We watched things on the WGBH Channel 2 about skydiving. They said they wanted to do that. I said I want to do that."

Some of those men he used to share the ambitions with while in prison are no longer alive, Clay said.

"The second time I did it, it was more for me," he added. "But the first time I did it was just to appreciate the conversations that I had with guys. So that's one of the few things I did when I first got out, was to skydive, jump out of a plane 10,000 feet in the air and falling down on the plane. It made me actually feel like I was truly free."

Alexander laughed, and added that he wanted to do something similar.

"I didn't want to skydive, but I actually wanted to go bungee jumping," he said. "And I want to go to the Grand Canyon where they got that glass floor [where you can] walk out on the glass floor and look down at the Grand Canyon. It's a feeling of freedom, like floating."

The two men then exchanged numbers so they could one day go bungee jumping together.

Edited by Mallory Yu

Audio story edited by Sarah Handel

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 11, 2023 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story quoted Jeffrey Gutman referencing judges in regards to federal civil rights lawsuits; Gutman misspoke and should not have included judges. The quote has been edited.
Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.