BOISE — A bill to compensate people who were imprisoned for crimes they did not commit will likely head to the Idaho House later this week.
The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on it on Tuesday, listening to testimony from several people, including two men who spent about two decades each of their lives in prison for murders they didn’t commit.
“I am so grateful for the tenacity of Carol Dodge, the mother of the woman I was wrongfully convicted of raping and murdering, and the Idaho Innocence Project. … I cannot put into words the feeling of finally proving my innocence after more than 20 years,” said Chris Tapp.
Tapp confessed in 1997 to participating in the raping and murder Angie Dodge in Idaho Falls, giving detectives the names of several alleged accomplices, none of whom were ever charged for the murder. With the help of the Idaho Innocence Project, Judges for Justice and Carol Dodge, he was freed from prison in 2017 amid concerns his confession had been coerced. He was formally exonerated in 2019, when Idaho Falls police arrested Brian Leigh Dripps. Dripps’ DNA was found to match samples at the scene, and he has been charged with the murder.
But even after his release, Tapp’s troubles weren’t over. He couldn’t get most jobs due to his conviction and had to depend on his friends and family, having been freed with little more than the clothes on his back.
Charles Fain, who was convicted in 1983 of raping and murdering a 9-year-old girl in Nampa, had a similar experience. Fain was freed in 2001 after DNA testing exonerated him.
“I think we deserve to be compensated for our time, and I want to say I’ll put myself on your mercy and your compassion and hope you do the right thing,” Fain said.
Rick Visser, the former legal director of the Idaho Innocence Project, read the committee a letter from Fain’s sister describing how he was released from prison with nothing but an oversized pair of jeans, an old T-shirt, his prison ID and no money. She had to rent a car to pick him up since he couldn’t board an airplane.
“The world had changed, and he was totally lost,” Visser read. “He did not know about ATMs, debit cards, cellphones, the internet. He didn’t know about seat belts. He was 20 years behind on his basic work skills. He lost opportunities for education or using his G.I. Bill.”
Rep. Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg, is sponsoring the bill. It would entitle people to $60,000 a year for years wrongfully spent in prison, $75,000 a year for years wrongfully spent on death row and $25,000 a year for years wrongfully spent on parole.
Idaho is one of 15 states that doesn’t have a wrongful conviction compensation law. Ricks said he generally has faith in the American justice system, but people should be compensated when the system gets it wrong.
“I think it’s important for the state to take some responsibility here,” he said.
Exonerees would have a two-year window to file their claims with a district court. They also would be able to seek non-monetary assistance such as health insurance, mental health counseling and help with tuition, housing, finding a job and medical expenses. The bill would create an “innocence fund” in the state Treasurer’s office to pay out claims, and the state would be reimbursed if a claimant wins a civil suit related to their case.
The committee will likely vote to send the bill to the full House on Thursday. Sen. Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, is sponsoring it in the Senate.
Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, said she has been following the Tapp case for years due to her friendship with John Thomas, his public defender. Ehardt said America’s Founders tried to craft a better judicial system, having seen the injustices that happened in England. She urged her colleagues to back the bill, even if they can never truly make things right by giving people like Fain and Tapp back the years they lost.
“Our Founders said it would be better that a guilty man go free than an innocent man go to prison,” Ehardt said. “We have failed, and that is most unfortunate.”