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House passes wrongful conviction bill

A bill allowing wrongly convicted people to seek compensation from the state of Massachusetts passed a legislative hurdle yesterday on Beacon Hill.

Approved yesterday in the House, a bill filed by Representative Patricia D. Jehlen of Somerville would enable wrongly convicted people to sue the state for damages of up to $500,000 for physical injury caused by loss of their freedom, and in certain cases, for additional injuries or physical sickness suffered in prison.

"If the state takes away your personal property . . . they should compensate you," said Jehlen, a Democrat.

The states of New York, Texas, California, and Maryland have enacted similar laws providing for compensation for those who were wrongly convicted.

Jehlen's measure is retroactive and would enable former prisoners who had their convictions overturned to seek action against the Commonwealth. "I have heard from probably 10 or 15 people with really good cases," Jehlen said.

In Massachusetts, only one wrongfully convicted prisoner has received compensation from the state, which requires a special act from the Legislature. Bobby Joe Leaster, who was convicted in 1971 of first-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, was released in 1986 and won a $500,000 settlement from the state six years later.

The bill has been shuffled throughout the State House for the last four years. It was passed by the House in December of 2002, but was later dropped in the Senate.

Boston defense lawyer Stephen Hrones said the difficulty in passing the bill lies with convincing both the Senate and Governor Mitt Romney that court cases filed by exonerated victims won't become too costly for the state.

"We are not going to break the bank on the state level," Hrones said. "There is a maximum of $500,000 and not everyone will get that. The moral obligation of society to help these people greatly outweighs any monetary woes."

If the legislation passes in the Senate, its fate would rest in the hands of Romney, who could sign the bill into law or veto it. The governor has not taken an official stance on the measure but will look at it if it proceeds to his desk, according to Romney press secretary Shawn Feddeman.

Currently in Massachusetts it is extremely difficult for exonerated victims to seek compensation, according to Hrones. State law allows victims to file civil rights suits, but only if the conviction was the result of misconduct by law enforcement officials.

Jehlen said she did not expect the courts to be overburdened with cases from former prisoners. "In some cases we think people would choose this instead of a civil case because those are harder to prove," she said.

Hrones represented Donnell Johnson, who was exonerated and released in 1999 after serving five years on a murder charge. "In a lot of cases the only way the innocent are going to be compensated is by these means," Hrones said.

"It's great for individuals who don't have any other type of redress," he said.

Brendan McCarthy can be reached at bmccarthy@globe.com

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