Gov. Brad Little has always been known as a practical man and a negotiator. And that makes his decisions on March 31 — which will be remembered as the worst day in his long career in public office to date — so baffling.
Little vetoed a bill sponsored by Rep. Doug Ricks, R-Rexburg, that would provide some compensation to those who are wrongfully convicted and serve prison sentences. In the House and Senate combined, the bill had received only one vote against passage.
Little said he agreed with the bill’s motives but disagreed with the details. Yet Ricks says Little never communicated any of these concerns to him during the legislative session when they could have been addressed through amendments to make the bill ready for his signature.
We have always known Little as a man who would look in the eye those he disagrees with and explain himself, not stab them in the back. We were evidently mistaken.
As badly as Little has mistreated Ricks, that’s hardly the worst of it.
If Little was going to veto this bill, he needed to look Chris Tapp and Charles Fain in the eye too. Why didn’t he have the courage to do so? Perhaps because it would be impossible to justify himself.
Tapp had more than 20 years of his life stolen by the state of Idaho. First, the police told a 19-year-old kid that he was going to the gas chamber unless he told them who had killed Angie Dodge. He had no idea, so the kid regurgitated whatever they wanted to hear. So he was sentenced to life in prison. Since he had no idea who killed Dodge, he was left holding the bag until Carol Dodge’s two decades of persistence finally resulted in the arrest of Brian Dripps and Tapp’s exoneration.
Tapp appealed his conviction repeatedly to every court in the state. And in every court, Lady Justice was not blind — she was absent. The Idaho Court of Appeals, which threw out some of Tapp’s false confession but allowed enough of it to remain to keep him in prison, stated that the “crux” of the state’s case against Tapp was testimony showing that he knew numerous details that only the killer could know. It became clear many years before Tapp was released that that testimony was a lie, and all the details from Tapp’s confession were either publicly known or fed to him by police. Yet he remained in prison.
And the state has taken no action — none at all — to hold the men who told those lies and ruined countless lives accountable.
Justice will not be done — and this community will have a wound that bleeds eternally — until that happens.
Fain was nearly murdered by the state Little now heads. He spent the years between 1984 and 2001 on death row after being wrongfully convicted of the murder of a 9-year-old Nampa girl. The state cut deals with jailhouse snitches to put him there and cooked up “expert” testimony that hair found on the girl’s body was his. When a federal court ordered DNA testing, it was proven that the hair belonged to someone else, and Fain was at long last released.
Today, in his old age, he still has to work.
How much money would Little accept today in exchange for erasing 20 years of his life? How much to spend 20 years deprived of freedom, every decision subject to the whims of prison guards, and under the constant threat of violence? How much should the state be punished for allowing its agents to tell lies that put the wrong man in prison and allowed the real killer to go free? That is how much the state owes. Quite simply, no matter how much compensation the bill called for, it was not enough, could never be enough.
But Ricks’ admirable bill was at least a gesture toward making things right.
Little’s veto message argues it was too much because other states also offer inadequate compensation. He also raised minor process objections, the kind of thing that Little should be expected to bring up with the bill’s sponsors before passage — particularly for a bill that passed both chambers nearly unanimously.
The total cost for compensating the wrongfully convicted is similar to the sum of the lawyer’s bills for a fighting a pair court battles the state has been warned it will lose. House Bill 509, which prevents transgender Idahoans from obtaining birth certificates matching their gender identity, is a simple and direct violation of a federal court order that will likely get the state held in contempt. House Bill 500 is also likely to fail constitutional review.
Little signed those bills the same day.
And that day, Little put a scar on his reputation, his record of service and his moral character that will not fade with time.