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SCOTUS: Exonerees don't have to prove selves for return of funds

The U.S. Supreme Court has just ruled that exonerees are entitled to the return of conviction-related costs and any restitution they've paid, and that they don't have to affirmatively prove their innocence in order to qualify. This is not a case involving monetary compensation for the undue hardship an innocent person endures in prison -- here, the money the exonerees are seeking is the money they were charged in court costs and fees, or that they have paid in restitution to someone else's victim.

The case involves a statute in Colorado, but New York has a similar policy in a slightly different part of the law -- the compensation of exonerees for the harm caused by their wrongful conviction and imprisonment.

New York requires the wrongfully convicted not only to show they are innocent but also that they are blameless -- they did not cause or bring about their own convictions. Both in New York's compensation statute and in Colorado's statute allowing the return of conviction-related costs, the exoneree has to prove his or her innocence and blamelessness by a standard called "clear and convincing evidence."

It was this standard of proof that the justices found troubling in the Colorado statute. They also found the burden of proof problematic. In a case in which the vast resources of the state have been brought to bear on an innocent individual, the court said, the burden should be on the state to prove they do not deserve to have their conviction-related costs returned. When one party has the burden of proof, that party has to make its case fully or it loses. The other party need not make more than a very basic case to win.

"To get their money back, defendants should not be saddled with any proof burden," wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the majority.

Since the two statutes are on slightly different subjects, it's difficult to tell whether New York's statute is also unconstitutional. There is clearly an argument to be made, however, that the "clear and convincing evidence" test is too strict -- or that the state, not the exoneree, should have the burden of proof.

It comes down to public policy. When someone has already spent time behind bars for a crime they didn't commit, should seeking compensation be hard or easy? Should the exoneree have to petition a hostile state agency, bring forward convincing proof, and make a persuasive case? Or, should the state be required to prove why it should not compensate an exoneree?

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