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Saying We're Sorry

New bill repays claimants for unnecessary jail time.

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During the final few days of the 103rd General Assembly session, the Tennessee legislature passed a bill of conscience -- righting wrongs levied on claimants who have been falsely imprisoned in state correctional facilities.

The bill, named for Shelby County resident Clark McMillan, pays innocent claimants up to $100 for each day served in jail. McMillan received national attention in 2002 when DNA evidence and the help of The Innocence Project exonerated him of the 1979 rape and robbery of a 16-year-old girl in Overton Park. At that time, McMillan had already served 22 and a half years of his 119-year sentence. Throughout his jail time, he steadfastly maintained his innocence even though he had been identified as the perpetrator by the girl and her boyfriend. This lengthy imprisonment was the second longest time served by any of the 140 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the country.

Senator Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) and Representative John DeBerry (D-Memphis) co-sponsored the bill, which allows the Board of Claims to award payments, not exceeding $1 million, in monthly installments to wronged individuals or their surviving spouses and children.

"This was a case of a person who does not, or will probably not, make a political endorsement to a particular legislator, but this is a bill of conscience," said Cohen. "Unfortunately, the [state legislature] does not do enough of that, but I'm glad we were able to do it."

McMillan became the first Tennessee claimant to qualify for the post-conviction DNA testing under a separate bill authored by Cohen and enacted in 2001. To qualify for the repayment, claimants must undergo a Board of Claims hearing determining them by "clear and convincing evidence" to be innocent. Claimants may also choose to receive a lump sum amount or establish an annuity.

"He had been out [of jail] for a couple of years now and no one was chomping at the bit to do anything for this man," said DeBerry, who met McMillan while working on the legislation.

During McMillan's time in jail he suffered a spinal injury, leaving him in severe pain. His sister, father, and grandmother died during that time, and his mother, attempting to fund his defense, lost her home.

Cohen said McMillan is expected to receive about $821,000 for his time served. As part of the legislation, no attorney will receive compensation for working on the case. n

E-mail: jdavis@memphisflyer.com

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