Gov. Brad Little signed the Wrongful Conviction Act on Friday, in the same courtroom where, 23 years ago, Christopher Tapp was sentenced for a crime he did not commit.
The signing of the bill comes after two years’ of effort by Idaho’s Legislature to pass a law to compensate those who have been wrongfully convicted. The bill was inspired by the exoneration of Tapp after he served 20 years in prison.
The Wrongful Conviction Act unanimously passed the Senate and the House of Representatives. A similar bill passed last year, but was vetoed by Little, to the surprise of the bill’s sponsors.
State Sen. Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg, who had sponsored the 2020 bill while he was a member of the House, worked with the governor’s office to adjust the bill so it would pass, which included the removal of “non-monetary compensation” from the bill, such as health insurance. Under the new law, a person who has been wrongfully convicted will be compensated with $25,000 for each year they were on parole, $62,000 for each year they were imprisoned, and $75,000 for each year they were on death row.
“This is a good bill,” Little said. “This is the right thing to do.”
Last month, Tapp told members of the House Judiciary Committee that when he left prison, he had only the clothes on his back, and had to rely on the support of friends and family to financially support himself.
Ricks said the bill would help not only Tapp, but others who have been wrongfully convicted. Both Ricks and Little said innovations in police investigations such as DNA testing can reduce wrongful convictions, but added that in cases where the justice system fails, the state has a responsibility to those unfairly punished.
“It’s for Chris Tapp, but it’s also for anyone who was put in the same situation,” Ricks said.
Tapp said he was grateful the legislators who passed the law listened to his story.
“This law will give wrongfully convicted people assistance to restart their lives and to help begin the process of moving on from the nightmare we have endured and continue to experience,” Tapp said in a statement.
Tapp was arrested in 1997 at age 20 for the 1996 murder of Angie Dodge after he had been interrogated by Idaho Falls police officers for 20 hours. Former FBI Agent Stephen Moore — who headed up investigations into Al Qaeda in the Los Angeles office following the September 11 attacks — detailed how officers fed information about the murder to Tapp and coerced his confession.
Moore’s 68-page report, released in 2014, analyzed the missteps made by detectives in their interrogation of Tapp.
Investigators believed Benjamin Hobbs, an acquaintance of Tapp’s who’d committed a similar crime in another state, had killed Dodge.
Tapp was interviewed nine times over three weeks in 1997. He denied his guilt until police told him he could face the death penalty or life in prison unless he said Hobbs had forced him to stab Dodge.
Moore’s report found that Idaho Falls detectives fed Tapp details from the crime scene and told him that he had repressed his memories of taking part in the crime. Under duress, Tapp eventually told police he was one of several people who participated in the rape and murder of Angie Dodge. He was sentenced in 1998 to a minimum of 30 years in prison.
Hobbs was never charged for the murder, however, because his DNA did not match samples recovered from the scene of the crime.
The case came under scrutiny after Moore’s review of the interrogation found Idaho Falls Police Department officers gave Tapp details of the crime, then claimed in court he had given those details on his own.
Pressure for Tapp’s release grew after Carol Dodge, the mother’s victim, became convinced of Tapp’s innocence and advocated for him. Tapp was released from prison in 2017 after he accepted a new plea deal that kept his murder conviction but removed the conviction for rape.
In 2019, a Caldwell man, Brian Dripps, who had lived across the street from Angie Dodge in Idaho Falls at the time of her death, was arrested after his DNA was matched to the crime scene.
Last month, Dripps pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and rape in the case. As part of the plea agreement, Dripps agreed to serve a fixed term of 20 years in prison, with an indeterminate sentence of up to life. The fixed term is less than the 30-year minimum sentence Tapp received when he was sentenced in 1998. Dripps is scheduled to be sentenced on April 27.
In his statement, Tapp also cited the case of Charles Irvin Fain, who was exonerated in 2001 after serving 18 years on death row for the rape and murder of a young girl. He was exonerated after DNA testing confirmed he did not match samples found at the crime scene. In 2020 testimony, Fain said he hoped to use any compensation he received to have longstanding dental issues treated and to buy a vehicle that didn’t break down constantly.
“This law will help Charles be able to have some measure of comfort during his golden years after the last two decades to rebuild his life after losing 18 years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit,” Tapp said. Tapp added that Fain had wanted to attend, but stayed home due to his age and the risk posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
John Thomas, the public defense attorney who represented Tapp, praised the law.
“I’m really happy for Chris and for Charles,” Thomas said. “I know that the justice system will be better off with this bill signed.”
Tapp said he is also involved in supporting similar laws in other states, and that he intends to continue advocating for people who have been wrongfully convicted.
Little and Tapp both noted that the Centennial Courtroom, where the signing ceremony took place, is the same location where he was convicted, and where he was later exonerated.
“I relive, sometimes, the nightmares of what has transpired over the past 23 years of my life,” Tapp said.
Tapp is suing the city of Idaho Falls for his time in prison. He said his civil case will continue despite the law passing.
Under the Wrongful Conviction Act, if a wrongfully convicted person receives a reward or settlement in a civil lawsuit, the amount they receive from the state is reduced by the amount they won in the lawsuit. Tapp said that if he wins his lawsuit, for example, he would have to refund the state of Idaho by the amount he won in the civil case. If the reward or settlement in the civil case is greater than the compensation under the act, he would have to return the full compensation, effectively preventing wrongfully convicted persons from being compensated twice.
“I’m grateful knowing that in the future when someone is exonerated this law will be in place to help them when they need it the most,” Tapp said.