We are board members of the Montana Innocence Project, which works to exonerate the innocent and prevent wrongful convictions. Our client Richard Burkhart was 23 years old when he was wrongly convicted of murder in Great Falls. Two years ago, at age 38, he was finally exonerated after the Montana Innocence Project found a police report of another person confessing to the crime.
The state of Montana unjustly took Richard’s freedom, but has not given him a dime to help him rebuild his life. In 32 other states, Richard would be eligible for monetary compensation. However, Montana’s compensation law provides only for tuition assistance for DNA exonerees, and even that limited program has not been funded. Regardless, Richard is ineligible because he was exonerated with non-DNA evidence.
Montana’s compensation law is also unfair to taxpayers. Without financial compensation from the state, Richard’s only redress is to file a federal lawsuit against the government entities that contributed to his wrongful conviction.
These lawsuits often take years to resolve, leaving taxpayers on the hook for paying for years of litigation costs. And, if the exoneree prevails there is no limit on the award.
Montana exonerees and taxpayers deserve a better deal. HJ 36 calls for an interim study on exoneree compensation and lawmakers should make this a priority. You can help by asking your state senator and representative to prioritize this interim study.
Dan Weinberg, Leif “Bart” Erickson and Parker Kelly serve on the Board of Directors for the Montana Innocence Project.