Would Michael Green, exonerated of rape charges by DNA evidence, be worth $2.2 million today if he hadn’t gone to prison? Just asking.
Judging from some of the comments, it seems that this blurb offended some of you. If so, I apologize.
(But I should also note that part of the blogger’s job is to
troll provoke readers, intellectually and emotionally. Elie is tasked with baiting provoking the conservatives, and I’m in charge of provoking the liberals. If we don’t offend you every now and then, we’re not doing our jobs.)
In making my excessively irreverent quip, I was trying to get at a fairly serious question: How can we put a price on a man spending years behind bars for a crime he did not commit?
In Friday’s New York Times, there were actually two articles about men who were wrongfully imprisoned, released from prison, and entitled to compensation from the state. Let’s start with the one we previously mentioned. Michael Green, who is now 45, served 27 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. He was released a few weeks ago after being exonerated by DNA evidence.
Here is the situation Green now faces:
[He's deciding] whether to take a $2.2 million compensation payment from the State of Texas or file a civil lawsuit in the hope of exposing the truth about the investigation that led to his incarceration. To receive the compensation, he must waive the right to sue.
“What I really need to do is to make them pay for what they done to me,” he says. “Two-point-two million dollars is nothing when it comes to 27 years of my life, which I spent with mental torture and physical abuse.”
It may not be a lot given Green’s horrific suffering for almost three decades, but at the same time, $2.2 million is nothing to scoff at. Here’s an important question: What would be the tax treatment of this payment? If it’s not taxable, it’s even more impressive, considering how much pre-tax income you’d have to earn in order to end up with $2.2 million, free and clear.
As I hinted at in my Non-Sequiturs blurb, it is probably the case that Green would not be in this financial situation had he not been wrongfully imprisoned. This is what his pre-prison life was like, according to the NYT:
In 1983, Mr. Green was a high school dropout who slept late every day, played video games at an arcade in the afternoons and stole cars at night to make money. “Life was one big party,” he recalled.
Of course, nothing has the power to give back to Green all the years of his life that he lost — years that are viewed by many as the best, most productive, most pleasurable years of life. In a certain sense, no amount of money can make him whole or return those years to him.
But having lost those years, Green might as well adopt the most positive outlook he can on his current situation. And here is one somewhat positive way of looking at his plight: he worked a very unpleasant job (being in prison), for a very long time (27 years), and now — thanks to his suffering — he’s a millionaire, at age 45. Had he not gone to prison, he probably would not be in such a good financial situation — i.e., entitled to a payment of $2.2 million.
But should he take that payment? That’s the question Green now faces. Taking the $2.2 million has its advantages. He would not have to relive the nightmare of his trial, conviction, and years in prison. He would get closure, as well as the certainty of a guaranteed amount. Even though he could get more from litigating, he could get less. The state could point out that today’s DNA technology wasn’t available 27 years ago and that Green was convicted after a trial featuring eyewitness testimony from the victim (erroneous, to be sure, but from a very sympathetic source — a rape victim).
On the other hand, Green could possibly get more — much more — from going to trial. Let’s look at the second Times article, which tells the tale of Thomas Goldstein (no relation to the superstar Supreme Court litigator Tom Goldstein).
Goldstein spent less time in prison than Green — 24 years for Goldstein, to 27 years for Green — for a murder he didn’t commit. Goldstein sued the City of Long Beach, alleging that the police withheld evidence in his 1980 trial, and received a sizable sum: a cool $7.95 million.
The sum of eight million dollars is definitely impressive. But the city settled because it could have been on the hook for even more:
“We don’t believe there was any wrongdoing” by city officials, [Long Beach attorney Monte] Machit said. “This is a lot of money, but in light of the potential verdict,” which could have been $24 million to $30 million and lawyers’ fees, he said, “we thought it better to get it resolved.”
Back to the case of Michael Green. Perhaps you can help him and his attorneys as they decide whether to accept the settlement or litigate. Feel free to discuss, in the comments to this post, how years of wrongful imprisonment should be valued. And take our two reader polls:
Wrongly Convicted Man Gets $7.95 Million Settlement [New York Times]
Cleared, and Pondering the Value of 27 Years [New York Times]