By Spencer S. Hsu | The Washington Post
A D.C. Superior Court judge ordered the District government Friday to pay a record $9.2 million in damages to Kirk L. Odom, 52, who was wrongfully imprisoned for more than 22 years in the rape and robbery of a woman in her Capitol Hill apartment in 1981.
The amount, set by Judge Neal E. Kravitz, is the second — and largest — award in a case tried before a District judge under the District’s wrongful conviction law, which was approved in 1980. It also is one of the largest non-jury awards in an exoneration case in the United States.
“Mr. Odom spent more than twenty-two years of what should have been the prime of his adult life behind bars for a crime he did not commit,” Kravitz wrote in a 37-page opinion that recounted Odom’s “profound” physical and psychological suffering over the decades that included several prison rapes, his diagnosis with HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — suicide attempts, depression and family estrangement.
“It was readily apparent to the court at trial that Mr. Odom is only a shell of the young man he was at the time of his wrongful conviction, and only a shell of the grown man he would have become had he not been wrongly convicted and unjustly imprisoned,” Kravitz wrote.
In an interview , Odom, who was 18 at the time of the crime, said he welcomed word of the award from his attorneys, but added, “They can’t pay me enough money to give me back the years that I’ve lost.”
Odom’s case is among what are expected to be several civil claims against the District by former prisoners exonerated through DNA evidence.
The Washington Post has reported that Odom is one of five D.C. men convicted of rape or murder whose charges have been vacated since 2009 because they were based on erroneous forensics and testimony by an elite unit of FBI hair experts.
Odom was exonerated in July 2012 after DNA testing showed that he was innocent and that another man — a convicted sex offender — committed the crime for which he was tried and sentenced in 1982 and incarcerated until 2003.
Since December 2009, DNA results have cleared Donald E. Gates, then 58, of a rape and a murder for which he had spent 28 years in prison. D.C. Superior Court judges have also exonerated two other men, Santae A. Tribble and Kevin Martin.
Another murder conviction, that of Cleveland Wright, was vacated, and his attorneys with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbiacontinue to ask the court to declare him innocent.
The ruling by Kravitz, appointed to the bench in 1998 by Bill Clinton, is the first time in two decades a prisoner’s claim under the D.C. Unjust Imprisonment Act has been decided by a judge at trial, and comes as courts around the country are coming to terms with how to respond to a growing number of DNA and other types of exonerations.
In ruling that under the D.C. law, prisoners have six months from their exoneration — and not their incarceration — to file suit, and that they can seek damages for time spent on parole as well as in prison and for physical and emotional injuries, Kravitz’s opinion could help establish a precedent for other District cases.
Kravitz spent pages starkly enumerating Odom’s suffering, which experts called “extreme,” caused by more than 20 years “enduring a world of deprivation permeated by sexual and physical violence and the terror it bred — a world in which he had no privacy, no control over his activities, no connection to his family and friends, and no opportunity to work or to raise his only daughter.”
Odom’s insistence that he was innocent led to a psychotic episode while he was imprisoned, and was repeatedly challenged when he was paroled as a registered sex offender, Kravitz wrote. His sexual victimization, HIV condition and sex offense conviction fed feelings of shame, stigma and distrust, similar to symptoms experienced by prisoners of war, the judge stated
Kravitz also provided one model for determining compensation, calculating damages at $1,000 per day of Odom’s incarceration, $250 per day of his time spent on parole and $200 per day between his exoneration and trial, citing Odom’s “serious and continuing” psychological injuries.”
In a statement, D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine said his office is reviewing Kravitz’s order.
Attorneys for the city had argued in Odom’s trial in November that he should be granted no more than the $1.1 million in federal damages he already received, because his case was handled by the U.S. attorney’s office, which conducts almost all criminal prosecutions in the city.
“We have great sympathy for Mr. Odom,” Racine said. “However, we respectfully believe that the District should not have to pay the amount ordered in a case in which it was not involved in prosecuting or convicting the plaintiff, and in which the federal government has already paid Mr. Odom the maximum amount identified by Congress for his incarceration.”
In his opinion, Kravitz concluded that the D.C. Council clearly intended its legislation to offer remedies beyond what was provided by federal law.
One of Odom’s attorneys in his civil damages suit, Anna Benvenutti Hoffmann, of the New York City law firm Neufeld, Scheck and Brustin, said, “It’s troubling to see the District try to disclaim moral and legal responsibility for Mr. Odom’s wrongful conviction.”
Hoffman added, “The District created the Unjust Imprisonment Act because it recognized the moral obligation D.C. has to an innocent person investigated by D.C. cops, convicted in a D.C. court by a D.C. jury, sentenced by a D.C. judge, and who spent many years wrongly incarcerated in a D.C. prison.”
Odom’s exoneration claim was led by Sandra K. Levick, chief of special litigation at the Public Defender Service.
In 2007, Nancy Gertner, then a federal judge in Massachusetts, awarded $102 million to four men and their survivors. The men were convicted of a mob murder they did not commit.