THE BLOG
03/28/2012 05:24 pm ET Updated May 28, 2012

The Price of Freedom

What do we owe an innocent prisoner after he is freed? Apparently nothing in the 27 states with no laws to compensate the wrongfully convicted.

The innocents in those states are released with fewer resources than if they had done the crime and served the time. Rapists and murderers on parole receive psychological counseling, job training and a host of social services unavailable to the exonerated, who are punished for not needing rehabilitation.

In the 23 states that provide cash payments to exonerees, the amounts are meager. In Illinois, for example, unjustly serve five years and you qualify for slightly more than $17,000 a year. And the more time behind bars, the lower our state's annual payments. Fourteen years gets you $12,000. Twenty equates to $10,000. You might as well work for minimum wage at McDonald's. You would make more and sleep in your own bed at night.

Worse, there is no guarantee that you will qualify for the money -- even if you are innocent.

Take the case of Eric Caine, a Jon Burge torture victim who was freed last year when the special prosecutor's office dropped the charges against him. I wrote about Caine's ordeal last October when he was denied a certificate of innocence by criminal courts Judge Michael McHale. The certificate is essential for the penniless Caine to receive the $199,150 lump sum he is owed for 25 years of wrongful incarceration -- $8,000 a year for being locked in a cage.

As I commented on Oct. 17, Judge McHale's decision was worthy of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland. "Petitioner [Caine] must prove his innocence independent of the fact that the state currently has no evidence against him for the crimes for which he was originally tried," McHale had ruled. Huh? In my view, this made Caine and other freed prisoners "guilty until proven innocent" under state law.

But Caine is nothing if not persistent. Back in court yesterday, Caine and his lawyer, Russell Ainsworth with Loevy & Loevy, tried to persuade Judge McHale that his decision had been incorrect -- and unjust.

Remarkably, upon further review, Judge McHale changed his call. Reading from a 10-page opinion, the judge reviewed case precedent that had been submitted by Ainsworth in his motion for reconsideration.

"Unrebutted testimony must be taken as true," the judge acknowledged, referring to Caine's repeated sworn statements professing his innocence that were rebutted only by a tainted confession. As for that confession, the judge concluded it "was the result of torture at Area 2" and therefore was "unreliable."

Looking straight at Caine, the judge did something rarely seen around the criminal courts complex. He admitted he had been wrong. "My previous ruling was in error," the judge said. He granted Caine's innocence certificate, then leaned toward the microphone. "Congratulations," the judge's voice boomed.

Caine sobbed tears of joy. He thanked the judge, hugged Ainsworth and a half-dozen supporters, and then, in a gracious gesture, extended his hand to the special prosecutors. "Good luck," they replied, exchanging handshakes.

After being locked up more than half of his life for a crime he did not commit, Eric Caine has struggled to survive in the free world for one year and 12 days. Now he intends to pay the rent and help other victims of the justice system. "And I'm goin' to Disney World," he adds with a raspy laugh.

Judge McHale's decision was wise and humble. It also was about time.

As for others like Caine, the Illinois compensation law is about to change if State Sen. Donne Trotter (D-Chicago) has his way. After reading about Caine's ordeal here, Sen. Trotter announced he will sponsor legislation in Springfield that will increase financial restitution and guarantee a certificate of innocence to all prisoners whose convictions are vacated.

"The system shouldn't make these individuals jump through hoops," Sen. Trotter told me yesterday. "Otherwise, we're exacerbating the original mistake."

"These men shouldn't have to prove their innocence," Sen. Trotter said. "Under the law, they are innocent."