LISTEN: Democratic Rep. Scott Holcomb explains to GPB’s Ambria Burton the importance of compensating Georgia’s wrongfully convicted due to the harsh reality former prisoners face after being released.

UPDATE: On March 29, 2023, the Wrongful Conviction Compensation Act failed to make it to the final version of Senate Bill 35 on Sine Die. The bill was stripped and became a vehicle for SB 109, a glucose monitor bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Shelly Echols of District 49.

The Wrongful Conviction Compensation Act, filed as House Bill 364 in the 2023 legislative session, is one final Senate approval away from being signed into Georgia law by Gov. Brian Kemp under Senate Bill 35.

With the session ending, several bills that are stuck in limbo — or have a high chance of dying due to the lack of time — are added onto other bills that still have a chance to be signed into Georgia law.

Senate Bill 35, whose original purpose was to establish special license plates in honor of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc, has been updated to also create the Wrongful Conviction Compensation Review Panel.

“[The panel] is to review to make sure that the person is in fact [innocent] and then if so, to make a recommendation in terms of the dollar figure for compensation,” said the bill's sponsor, Democratic Rep. Scott Holcomb of the 81st District in Atlanta.

The panel would be created by the Claims Advisory Board, consisting of Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger as the chairperson; commissioner of human services, Candice L. Broce; commissioner of corrections, Timothy C. Ward; and commissioner of transportation, Russell McMurry.

The panel would consist of  “a judge, retired judge, or retired justice who presides over felony criminal matters in any state court of record, appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia; a current district attorney appointed by the governor; a criminal defense attorney appointed by the Governor; an attorney, forensic science expert, or law professor, with expertise in wrongful convictions, appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives; and an attorney, forensic science expert, or law professor, with expertise in wrongful convictions, appointed by the President of the Senate.”

Holcomb told the House before the Crossover Day vote that the Wrongful Conviction Compensation Act will reform Georgia’s mistakes in exonerating wrongfully sentenced truthfully innocent individuals.

“In Georgia, since 1989, 47 people have been exonerated as being innocent and they lost a total of 538 years,” he said. “Those were years that they were spent incarcerated away from their loved ones, away from their ability to make a living. This idea is to compensate these individuals and to set forth a structure whereby experts will make a determination of innocence and then make a recommendation for compensation.”

If the committee panel proves innocence, a recommendation for a certain dollar amount, based on the national average of $75,000, would be requested by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from the judicial council’s budget. If it’s approved the money will be sent to the exonerated persons.

Democratic Rep. Debbie Buckner of the 137th District was among the legislators that sponsored a resolution to compensate a wrongfully convicted individual in Georgia. She told the Senate Appropriations Committee she is in full support of the compensation act.

“I’m very much in favor of the [Wrongful Conviction Compensation Act],” Buckner said. “I feel very strongly that this is a process that we should go through with as little politics as possible — and have people that know about evidentiary processes — and that it needs to be in a commission.”

HB 364 has received bipartisan support from lawmakers like Republican Rep. Penny Houston of District 170 in Nashville; Republican Rep. Bill Werkheiser of the District 157 in Glennville; and Republican Sen. Greg Dolezal of District 27 in Cumming.

The current process for compensating Georgia’s wrongfully convicted involves the wrongfully convicted person lobbying to lawmakers, who would then file a resolution asking for compensation from the General Assembly during the session. 

The problem, Holcombe said, is that some members of the General Assembly feel they do not have enough information to make decisions on compensation for individual wrongful conviction cases.

“Many of them are not lawyers and they don’t have a background in analyzing criminal justice cases,” Holcomb said. “There is a desire by at least some legislators to have a group of experts help to make sure that the individuals that are being compensated are innocent and then to set the dollar thresholds.”

The Georgia Innocence Project is a nonprofit organization dedicated to correcting, proving, and preventing wrongful convictions in Georgia. The group has worked closely with Holcomb and other lawmakers who sponsored the compensation act in the past.

“These cases that we deal with, often we've been litigating them sometimes for decades, so they are really complex cases, especially if you don't have a particular background in criminal law,” GIP Communication Manager Blis Savidge said.

Man standing in sunset.

Terry Tally was exonerated in 2021 after spending over 40 years in prison for four wrongful conviction charges against him.

Credit: Georgia Innocence Project

One of GIP’s recent cases involved Terry Tally, who was seeking compensation under House Resolution 55, sponsored by Buckner. Tally is a recent exonerate of GIP who spent 40 years behind bars before being exonerated in 2021. He currently works for the city of LaGrange, but his income is not suitable enough for the years he missed out on working, per Savidge.

“He’s a really hard worker, but even just working for the government, he only makes $391 a week,” she said. “Terry is 65 years old and most people by that time have been able to retire and are living on their savings and Social Security benefits. Terry never had that opportunity so now — because there’s no compensation — to survive, he has to work this job and survive off of that living.”

Compensation cases like Tally’s would have a better chance of being acknowledged and delivered if the Wrongful Conviction Compensation Act passes under Senate Bill 35.

“It’s very important that we have a way to compensate that the amount of money we're talking about here,” Holcomb told GPB. “There is a real cost and consequences of the unfortunate act of the state to prosecute the wrong people and we have to make sure that we get the right folks.”