To the Editor:
Nineteen years ago, I was released from 6½ years of a life sentence wrongfully imprisoned in Rhode Island for a murder I didn’t commit, with nothing more than what I …
To the Editor:
Nineteen years ago, I was released from 6½ years of a life sentence wrongfully imprisoned in Rhode Island for a murder I didn’t commit, with nothing more than what I had accumulated in my cell and that I hadn’t been allowed to give away to other inmates I was finally leaving behind. There was no apology from the judge, the prosecutor or from the attorney’s general. In fact, the A.G., now a U.S. senator, stood on the court house steps to tell the media that I, a Warwick police detective, showed a terrible lapse of judgment, duty and professionalism by likely visiting the crime scene and not reporting it. That wasn’t true.
When I was released, there was no law or provision in place to assist exonerees with housing, transportation, counseling or anything else, but I was fortunate to have friends and family who stood by me, believed in me, and who were there to welcome me home; not everyone is as lucky. There was also support from many members of the Warwick Police Department who held a fundraiser for me and my family, as well as strangers who left donations with my trial attorney.
Some people think that exonerees receive millions of dollars in lawsuits, as well as book and movie deals. Sometimes that happens, but it’s not the norm. I was contacted by book agents, speaker’s bureaus representatives and even people in Hollywood; one was interested in producing a movie and another wanted me to emcee a TV show about people fighting to prove their innocence, but nothing ever materialized from all the ideas and promises. I’ve provided dozens of guest lectures by request, but usually for free.
I was also told by my brother and a few former partners on the job to expect the city of Warwick and the Warwick Police to welcome me back with open arms. Instead, I had to file suit for my job back. It took years of litigation for Justice Rodgers to rule in my favor for reinstatement. I was eventually reinstated and retired. I really miss the work I was doing, and I think I was pretty good at it.
Since my release, I’ve met many exonerees from around the country, and I’ve learned of others nationwide who are demonstrably innocent but still wrongfully imprisoned due to the callous and malicious acts of judges, prosecutors and investigators. Although I was angry with the Rhode Island State Police for their single and focused investigation against me, and the Attorneys General’s Office for prosecuting me without evidence or witnesses linking me to the crime, I must give them credit for acting swiftly to have me released once they realized that I was not the one responsible. Still, what they did to my mom, my sons, other loved ones and to me is still difficult to forgive.
My mom sold her house while I was in prison to help pay for ongoing attorney fees, investigator fees and DNA testing, and her health and mental well-being was never the same. My boys were forced to grow up without a dad, and with the stigma of a father in prison for murder. Our house was foreclosed on, attorney fees were never-ending, and that only skims the surface of the losses; time was our biggest loss. A wrongful imprisonment negatively affects many, while investigators and prosecutors receive praise and promotions, and the one responsible is still free to prey on others.
When someone who actually commits a crime is paroled, they are afforded an array of services and assistance to help them transition back into society. Beginning in 2003, I attempted to generate interest in legislators sponsoring a bill to provide assistance and compensation for exonerees. I contacted my representative in Cranston and met with her, but she never followed up. It wasn’t until around 2018, when I was living in West Warwick, that I mailed a cover letter and accompanying materials to Rep. Pat Serpa, and she responded enthusiastically that she would support such a bill.
I let my heroes at The Innocence Project and The New England Innocence Project know that I finally found a champion for this effort, and they got on board, too. The bill was modeled after many others across the country, not the best but definitely not the worst. In 2019, my oldest son, Joshua, brother, Dave, and I testified in support of the bill along with Beth Powers and Rebecca Brown from The Innocence Project and NEIP’s Executive Director Radha Natarajan.
The bill was passed unanimously by the House, but was blocked in the Senate. It passed the House unanimously again in 2020, was going to be blocked again in the Senate, but the pandemic caused the General Assembly’s session to end abruptly. Our bill unanimously passed the House a third time this year, and the Senate finally did pass it, but not before amending it with language harmful to some future exonerees – barring exonerees who had ineffective assistance of counsel at trial, as well as making exonerees go through the prison’s department of probation and parole rather than Rhode Island’s Department of Health and Human Services for assistance with reintegration into society. No exoneree wants to or should have to deal with members of the prison system for assistance, and exonerees who had lousy lawyers should not be punished again because of it.
In addition to correcting those errors in the new law, the amount of compensation should adequately reflect today’s economy, with a reasonable increase from $50,000/year to at least $75,000/year. Many, many legislators we testified before told me and my family that no amount of money was enough, but that $100,000 was not unreasonable. Exonerees should also receive an immediate $1,000 to help with day-to-day expenses until their petitions are heard.
Lastly, it is my strong belief that Rhode Island legislators should not be allowed to sponsor or co-sponsor a bill when s/he intends to block its passage or otherwise add harmful language to it; both occurred with Rhode Island’s Wrongful Imprisonment Assistance and Compensation Bill. It’s not a great law, not as good as it would have been had the Rhode Island Senate passed it as written, but it’s on the books and it’s a good start.
Gov. Dan McKee held a ceremonial signing of the bill on Sept. 16; he and his aides were all gracious and genuinely supportive of our efforts. There are now 13 states without a wrongful imprisonment assistance and compensation statute, and I have no doubt that Rhode Island would still be without one if not for the tireless efforts of Rep. Pat Serpa and Beth Powers.
I will be hoping that this letter finds you and finds you well.
Jeffrey Scott Hornoff
Somewhere in Delaware