New bill would end payment cap for wrongful conviction in Massachusetts

Lawyer Johnson, who spent 10 years in prison for a murder verdict that was overturned, helped push Massachusetts to provide compensation for wrongful conviction.

A state senator introduced legislation to eliminate a $500,000 cap on the damages Massachusetts can award to people wrongfully convicted of major crimes.

Sen. Patricia D. Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat, said Thursday that she filed the bill to increase compensation and streamline the path to compensation for those mistakenly imprisoned.

Reporter Chris Burrell on proposed changes to the wrongful conviction compensation law.

Jehlen filed the bill after an Eye investigation in December found that only 27 claimants had received money under a 2004 restitution law the senator authored, collecting an average of $374,233 each. Jehlen said she was dismayed to learn about the difficulties some faced in getting compensation, including a man who received only $275,000 after serving 10 years in prison for a murder conviction that was overturned.

“These people had a large portion of their lives taken away,” Jehlen told The Eye. “The state has a moral obligation to them.”

Among changes, the legislation would allow plaintiffs released from prison to seek $50,000 in immediate help if they can show that they likely will win their case. It would also entitle successful plaintiffs to attorneys’ fees and prohibit the state from requiring recipients to return funds if they win damages from other parties.

Jehlen said she does not know yet whether her bill will face resistance and hasn’t spoken to anyone in Gov. Charlie Baker’s office.

She has, however, spoken with the Office of the Attorney General, which is responsible for litigating wrongful conviction compensation case, and is looking forward to working with them to amend the law. Emily Snyder, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, said her office is reviewing the legislation.

A Jehlen staffer said she expects the bill will be assigned to a committee responsible for filing a report by early next year.