For over six years of my life, I was wrongfully incarcerated in an Oregon prison. I was convicted in Malheur County of a crime I did not commit and falsely labeled as having abused my own child. I was living a nightmare, but I couldn’t wake up.
Last year, Gov. Kate Brown granted me a pardon on the grounds of my innocence, the first time she has issued a pardon on that basis. I no longer carry the labels of “felon” or “sex offender” but the problems stemming from my wrongful conviction are far from over.
Due to my conviction, I lost the good career I had in the military and can’t go back to it. I am a combat veteran who served my country in Afghanistan, but that didn’t count for anything when the state took everything from me and sent me to prison.
Since returning to the community, I have spent thousands of dollars on polygraph tests, which my parole officer repeatedly forced me to take, assuming I was lying when I said I was innocent.
The greatest loss, though, was time with my daughters while they were growing up. During my time in prison, I was not allowed to see or talk to them at any time. I wasn’t even allowed to send them a letter.
Trying to overcome all of this has been a tremendous struggle for me and my family. The stigma of my wrongful conviction is such that every time I meet someone new, I have had to worry about what they are thinking about me. I have had to try to find words to explain that I’m not who my conviction said I was.
I’m free now, and my innocence has been recognized, but I’m still trying to rebuild my life. I had to start over when I got out of prison and the challenges I face have not come to an end just because I no longer have the wrongful conviction on my record.
People like me are just asking for a fair shot. We lost everything and it was the criminal justice system that took it from us. I believe it’s time for Oregon to recognize exonerees and address the harm that has been done to us. I am an innocent man, but those are just words. How can the state be allowed to take everything away from me and shrug its shoulders after I am exonerated?
Fortunately, there’s an opportunity for Oregon to do the right thing. A bill currently being considered by legislators, Senate Bill 499 by Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, would provide a fixed amount of $65,000 in compensation per year of wrongful incarceration to exonerees who meet certain criteria, as well as $25,000 for years spent on parole, post-prison supervision or the sex offender registry.
Our neighbors in Idaho passed similar legislation this year, and the governor recently signed that bill into law. If Idaho can do it, so should Oregon.
Seeing SB 499 become law would mean more than just financial compensation that would allow me to get back on my feet and give me a chance to support my family the way I should have been doing all those years I was locked up.
This bill represents the state of Oregon admitting they sometimes get it wrong. And for wrongfully convicted people like me, that means more than words can say.