Innocent but locked up for 17 years, man hopes for compensation
For the third time, the Legislature is looking at a bill to compensate wrongfully convicted individuals.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Alan Northrop spent 17 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
In 1993, a housekeeper in La Center, Clark County, was blindfolded and raped. She pointed out Northrop and Larry Davis in a lineup.
In 2010, the two men were cleared of all charges using DNA testing, which had not been widely available when they first were convicted.
Northrop was released, his record cleared, and he faced the prospect of getting to know his three children, now in their early 20s.
“I did 17 messed-up years in there,” Northrop recently said of his time in prison, noting that rapists are not looked upon favorably by inmates.
Upon his release, Northrop had to find a job to pay off 17 years’ worth of child support. While the state waived its portion of his bills, he still owed his children’s mother about $50,000. With a 17-year gap in his work history, a job was hard to come by.
He was lucky, he said, to have his brother to turn to, because the state left him to fend for himself.
Proposed legislation may change that. If it passes, House Bill 1341 will require the state to compensate wrongfully convicted inmates for every year they served in prison.
For the third time, Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, is sponsoring the bill that would entitle inmates later proved innocent to $50,000 for each year served, and an additional $50,000 for each year spent on death row. They also would receive $25,000 for each year spent on parole or as a registered sex offender.
“I’ve seen the impact it’s had on several men who were wrongfully incarcerated in the state,” Orwall said. “Not only do they suffer a loss of liberty while they’re confined, they suffer when they’re released.”
For the past two years, the bill failed because of concerns about where the state, which had to fill a $4.6 billion budget gap the first time the bill was proposed, would find the compensation money. With this year’s lower deficit, both Republicans and Democrats have signed on to the bill.
Wrongfully convicted prisoners can sue for compensation, but they must prove intentional misconduct by state officials. This bill would give men like Northrop a second option.
Northrop thinks he was convicted through a faulty investigation. When police sketches of the rapist went up in La Center, an anonymous tip pinpointed Northrop as the man in the sketches.
Police showed the housekeeper a series of photos, including Northrop’s, but she could not point out her attacker, Northrop said. Weeks later, she pointed him out of a lineup. He was the only suspect included in both the photo array and the lineup, he said.
With the help of the University of Washington branch of the Innocence Project, Northrop was able to get DNA samples from his trial tested. It did not match any of the suspects police had during their investigation.
Now 48, Northrop was exonerated and his record cleared. However, the effects of his imprisonment were harder to erase.
“Just trying to make a decision,” he said. “A simple decision. I’m not used to that. In there, you don’t have to worry about it.”
Before he was convicted, Northrop was a logger and owned his own excavation business on the side. He now makes $11 an hour at an auto-glass repair shop, a job he secured through a friend.
The Innocence Project, a nonprofit that helps indigent clients overturn wrongful convictions, estimates Northrop is one of no more than 10 people in the state now who would be able to file a claim to receive compensation under the proposed law.
The bill would align Washington’s compensation standards with federal law, which entitles wrongfully convicted inmates to up to $50,000 per year they served in federal prison and $100,000 for each year spent on death row.
“There’s widespread agreement on the principle that someone who is actually innocent but was convicted, that it’s appropriate to compensate that person,” said Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, the bill’s co-sponsor. He heads the House Judiciary Committee, which recently passed the bill 11-2.
“It’s all about the money now,” he added.
While Northrop says the compensation would help, he thinks the bill could go further. He would like the state to offer counseling services and a place to stay, similar to halfway houses for recently released prisoners.
“It’s so guys like me can get started over again,” he said.
Sarah Freishtat: 206-464-2373 or firstname.lastname@example.org