Thomas James spent 32 years in a Florida prison for a murder he did not commit. And though he was ultimately exonerated in April, the Black man is ineligible to receive over $1 million in compensation because of a state law that “only exists in Florida.”
According to NBC Miami, James isn’t the only exonerated person facing this setback in Florida. “I’m not angry, I’m hurt,” James said. “I’m hurt by it.”
The Black man currently stays with his mother, and he lives on donations from people. “For someone like me, what are we supposed to do?” James said. “We can’t come out and automatically have a job, we don’t automatically have money, we don’t automatically have anything. The only thing that we have that’s automatic is the struggle.”
Exonerated persons under Florida law are entitled to a compensation package of up to $2 million. But there are certain limitations. Exonerated persons who wish to apply for compensation must do so within 90 days. However, people with violent felony records prior to their wrongful conviction aren’t eligible.
“That means that the state of Florida is saying that we did you wrong and we now know that you are innocent, but we don’t owe you anything,” James said.
James doesn’t qualify for compensation under state law because he was convicted of violently resisting an officer when he was 22. “That’s really the biggest and most painful barrier to people who would otherwise be eligible,” the Innocence Project of Florida’s Intake Coordinator, Dr. Adina Thompson, said.
The state law in question is called the “clean hands provision.” The Innocence Project of Florida has over the years been making efforts to have the law changed.
“This is something that only exists in Florida. No other state has this rule,” Dr. Thompson added.
Per the Florida Attorney General’s Office, only one person in the state has been eligible for compensation over the last five years, NBC Miami reported. Had James been qualified, he would have been entitled to around $1.6 million for the time he spent wrongfully incarcerated.
“It’s a small thing, really small in comparison to what I lost,” said James.
Dr. Thompson also said the law is “an issue that affects everyone.” “Because everyone could potentially experience a wrongful conviction themselves. So it’s a basic humanity, it’s a basic kindness to repair a wrong that society has done to these folks,” Dr. Thompson added.