Last night while cooking dinner, we decided to rev up a documentary that’s been languishing on our Netflix Instant queue for ages: Witch Hunt. Suffice to say that we weren’t anywhere near prepared for the ensuing 90 minutes, in which the filmmakers unwind a completely devastating J’accuse regarding the Kern County child-abuse panic of the 1980s. By the end, we were ready to tote our pitchfork to Bakersfield so that we could exact vengeance upon Ed Jagels, the district attorney who let this travesty happen.
Yet our outrage stands in stark contrast to the more philosophical outlooks of the hysteria’s main victims—the men and women who lost years of their lives to unjust incarceration. We couldn’t believe how devoid of rage these people are—some because they have faith that they’ll receive celestial justice when the Reaper eventually comes calling, and others because they’ve made a conscious choice not to wallow in bitterness during their remaining years on Earth. We can’t imagine having the mental fortitude to attain inner peace in such circumstances, but perhaps decades of suffering bestow a sort of wisdom that we can’t even begin to understand.
We were at least a little heartened to learn that John Stoll, the primary focus of Witch Hunt, recently settled a wrongful conviction lawsuit with Kern County that will net him a $5 million payout—or $400,000 for each year he spent in prison. A nice little chunk of change, but is it enough? That’s where things get interesting, because how do we begin to put a price tag on making up for such abominations? Do we follow “the market,” as defined by average life-insurance payouts? Or do we need to add on a significant amount for subjecting innocent citizens to a Kafkaesque nightmare?
We think it important to make clear that the $1,000,000 annuity selected by the district court as the baseline for its calculation should not be understood as a carob seed for measuring the harm caused by wrongful incarceration generally. Applying a literal reading of the statement in Limone IV that “wrongfully imprisoned plaintiffs were entitled to compensation of at least $1 million per year of imprisonment,” 497 F. Supp. 2d at 243 (emphasis supplied), one district court recently has treated the $1,000,000 per year baseline as a floor for damages arising out of wrongful incarceration. See Smith v. City of Oakland, 538 F. Supp. 2d 1217, 1242-43 (N.D. Cal. 2008) (citing Limone IV). We regard that characterization as unfortunate. As we have emphasized, the district court’s awards are at the outer edge of the universe of permissible awards and survive scrutiny, though barely, only because of the deferential nature of the standard of review and the unique circumstances of the case.
So $1 million per year may soon become the ceiling for these cases, regardless of the circumstances. Does that strike you as fair? (We don’t mean that as a loaded question—we’re genuinely curious as to what the right price for this sort of compensation should be.)
Meanwhile, over in South Korea, wrongful-imprisonment compensation is pretty much identical to what it is here in the U.S. Which we reckon is some sort of exceedingly minor victory for the universality of human worth.