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Bill would compensate citizens for wrongful conviction

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Citizens who are wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for crimes they did not commit could collect $200,000 in compensation from the state under legislation passed by the Oklahoma House on Monday.

The House voted 94-1 for the measure as three former inmates who served a combined total of 43 years in state prisons watched from the House gallery with members of their families.

Each of the inmates would be eligible to file a claim for compensation under the bill, said the measure's author, Rep. Opio Toure, D-Oklahoma City.

``It's a start,'' said Arvin McGee of Tulsa, who was convicted of rape and imprisoned for 14 years before he was exonerated by DNA tests and released last month.

``I feel like it's a step in the right direction,'' said Gene Weatherly of Hobart, who was released from prison in 1998 after 15 years and said he was later exonerated on two counts of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill.

``I feel Toure really understands this bill,'' said Thomas Webb of Spencer, who was released from prison in May 1996 after spending 14 years in prison for a rape that DNA testing proved he did not commit.

``Since I have been out there have been some issues, financial issues, that we have had to deal with,'' Webb said. ``It's not an easy thing to come out of prison and try to make it.''

Toure said the bill would give citizens who are wrongfully convicted and imprisoned a procedure to file a claim with the state and avoid suing the state for damages.

``They sat in prison cells day after day, year after year, for a crime they didn't commit,'' Toure said. ``There's no way that $200,000 would compensate me.''

State law does not provide a way to compensate wrongfully convicted citizens or restore their basic rights as a citizen.

``Our concern is citizens who have lived through that terrible tragedy,'' Toure said. ``They can't find a job. They can't get a driver's license. They can't go to school.''

Toure said a total of eight former inmates have been released from state prisons after being cleared of the crimes for which they were convicted. Two of them have filed lawsuits seeking $100 million each. Neither Webb, McGee nor Weatherly have filed lawsuits, he said.

Rep. Chris Steel, R-Shawnee, said he was concerned that the volume of claims could deplete the state's resources.

``I don't want to bankrupt the state,'' Steele said. ``If we're not careful, we're going to get a lot more than we bargained for.''

But Steele voted for the bill. The lone no vote was cast by Rep. Dennis Adkins, R-Tulsa.

The Legislature passed a bill last year to allow wrongfully convicted citizens to seek compensation from the state, but it was vetoed by Gov. Frank Keating.

Keating has said the state should pay compensation when there is evidence of perjury or other wrongdoing by state prosecutors or law enforcement personnel which resulted in the conviction.

The governor has also said he believes more should be done to restore the citizenship rights of wrongfully convicted individuals.

The measure, House Bill 2637, now goes to the Senate for action.
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