By Phoebe Jones
“Peacocks are sacred birds, you know,” John Floyd tells me on a cool day in mid-February outside of his home in Ridgeland, Mississippi. We are seated next to a pond behind an unassuming apartment complex off a busy road. This isn’t the first time John interrupts himself to talk about animals.
John Floyd, now 71 years old, served 36.5 years at America’s largest maximum-security prison, the Louisiana State Penitentiary (better known as Angola), for a murder he did not commit. Innocence Project New Orleans took on Floyd’s case in 2001 and after years of uncovering evidence that had not been turned over in the initial case, Floyd was finally exonerated of the crime in 2018.
Floyd now lives in his own space with a tiny dog named Maggie.
“I’m living that life now that I should have been living many years ago,” he said. “It’s peaceful around here. I got good neighbors. I’ve got my little friend, right here. She won’t leave my side.”
But he might be in a very different place if he hadn’t been wrongfully imprisoned so many decades ago.
Under Louisiana’s current law, exonerated people must apply for compensation from the state for wrongful imprisonment. The process may take years, and even if granted, wrongly convicted people receive only $25,000 a year with a cap of 10 years, and as of 2019, they will also get a one-time payment of $80,000.
The Current Fight for Compensation
The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, just ahead of El Salvador and Rwanda, incarcerating, on average, 655 people per 100,000. Louisiana’s rate is higher than any other state in the U.S., with 680 per every 100,000 people locked up. In 2015, the state of Louisiana spent $622,350,856 on incarcerating people.
Between 1989 and April 2021, Louisiana exonerated 64 people, making up a total of 978.6 years of people’s lives lost to wrongful imprisonment. The population of Louisiana is 32 percent Black, yet 53 of the 64 exonerees — about 82 percent — are Black. Black people are incarcerated at a rate four times as much white people. A 2017 study by the National Registry of Exonerations shows that you are seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder if you are Black.
Louisiana is one of 35 U.S. states that offers financial compensation for exonerated people, though the state offers the fourth lowest amount. Neighboring Mississippi provides $50,000 per year with a cap at 10 years, and the national average is even higher at $68,000 per year. Texas provides $80,000 per year of wrongful incarceration.
In the coming weeks, the Louisiana House of Representatives will vote on House Bill 92. The bill is bipartisan, sponsored by two Democrats, two Republicans and one Independent, Representative Joseph Marino III, who is the author. Originally HB 92 sought to double the amount paid to exonerees in Louisiana, making the yearly compensation $50,000 instead of $25,000, and eliminating the 10-year cap on the number of years exonerees are eligible for compensation.
In April, HB 92 passed step one of the voting process, with an 11-0 vote in favor of passage by the Committee on Administration of Criminal Justice in the Louisiana House. HB 92 has since been amended by the Louisiana House Appropriations Committee to a $40,000 yearly compensation with a $400,000 cap. On May 18, 2021 this amended version of HB 92 passed through the House with 98 yeas and 0 nays. On May 25, 2021, HB 92 is set to be heard by the judiciary committee in the state senate, then the full state senate, and finally will be sent to the desk of Gov. John Bel Edwards to be signed, if it makes it this far.
What Exonerees Lose: Financially and Beyond
If passed, the improved cap on compensation ($400,000 vs. the current $250,000) would be a win for exonerees. Greg Bright was wrongly incarcerated for 27.5 years for a murder to which he had no connection other than living in the same neighborhood as the victim. Because of the current law, he received $25,000 for only ten of these years despite working throughout his entire prison sentence.
“When I first was incarcerated in state prison,” Bright said, “I went right to work, worked in the fields several years, and then I landed a job in the culinary department in the kitchen. I went from sweeping and wiping tables to the grill and the butcher shop to the governor’s mansion. I had several jobs.”
Bright’s story is not unique. Most people at Angola work while incarcerated, often performing hard labor in cotton fields on the land of a former slave plantation — often for as little as 2 cents an hour. Another exoneree, Douglas Dilosa, incarcerated for 14 years, went to Angola in the midst of completing a master’s degree. For 12 of those years he worked in the law library making 20 cents an hour, “the maximum pay for any inmate.”
Of the 64 people exonerated in the state of Louisiana, only 33 have been granted compensation, partly because the process for receiving it isn’t easy. Without the help of Innocence Project New Orleans, many of these 33 may not have been able to focus on the arduous legal process.
First, the applicants must have their convictions cleared or reversed in a court. Second, they must also prove by clear and convincing evidence through an evidentiary hearing before a judge that they are factually innocent. Even once this is completed, it can take months or even years to begin receiving the annual checks.
Archie Williams spent close to 37 years in Angola but is only able to receive a maximum of $330,000. This means Williams was paid just over $8,500 for each year he spent in prison.
Since his exoneration in 2019, Williams, a lifelong singer, has forged a path for himself as a performer, becoming a finalist on America’s Got Talent. (His audition went viral and as of April 29 the video had more than 11.5 million views.) His story spurred Simon Cowell to become an ambassador to The Innocence Project (a separate organization from Innocence Project New Orleans who was also involved in his exoneration), claiming “Archie’s performance is probably the single most important one in the history of America’s Got Talent.”
Though Williams has gained fame and recognition for his talent and story, his day-to-day is a constant financial struggle. When we met in April, Williams described having almost nothing left.
“So now I’m at point one again,” he said. “Because all I can get is $25,000 every September. Don’t have anything to live off. I’m living with friends now.”
Bright was able to purchase his own home after his release in 2003, but almost 20 years later can’t make ends meet.
“Before COVID I was working for a construction company, and as a result of COVID lost that job,” he said. “And so now I’m basically hanging on by the threads.”
There is agreement among exonerees that the current amount of $25,000 with a cap of 10 years is both arbitrary and, as Dilosa puts it, “grossly insufficient.”
Dilosa was wrongly incarcerated for 14 years, from 1987 to 2001 and believes an increase in compensation is crucial.
“And even then, it would not pay everybody for what they’ve lost,” he said.
Multiple exonerated people describe missing their loved one’s deaths, funerals, marriages, children’s upbringings.
“No amount of money is ever going to bring back the last years that I [would have] had with my children,” said Dilosa, who also mentions not being able to spend time with his parents before they died. “Almost everyone in my family from my parents’ generation died while I was incarcerated.”
Bright said those losses are difficult to quantify.
“I don’t care if it’s a year or five years,” he said. “There are some things that can happen in one year that 20 years couldn’t replace.”
Current compensation may cover the most basic living expenses, but exonerees often need more — like therapy, for example.
The trauma someone carries when coming out of prison can be permanent and crippling. A 2014 study found that about half of the prison population has mental health concerns and 10 to 25 percent have serious mental illnesses, compared to 5 percent of people in the general population.
Attempting to incorporate the high cost of therapy into a budget of just $25,000 a year can be difficult or impossible.
“You want to encourage someone to do that, but if you can’t afford to, then that’s going to be the last thing on his mind,” said Jerome Morgan, who spent 20 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.
What Society Loses: The Loss of Removing Our Own
Dilosa was 36 years old when he was wrongfully imprisoned. He had a bachelor’s degree in business and psychology, was working on his MBA, and maintained a mentorship role in his kids’ and other children’s lives.
“I was an active part of the community,” he said. “I volunteered at the playground. I coached tee-ball. I coached baseball. I worked with the children at the playground. … Certainly the community lost something.”
Though Bright still paints and plays music along with some acting (he appears in TV shows such as “Treme” and “American Horror Story”), his outlook on a creative career path is jaded, partly because he spends so much time worried about paying his bills and dealing with his house.
“[New Orleans] lost a musician. … I played music and I always had an interest in music and art,” he said. “And so, I mean, certainly I could have shared that and passed that along as time was moving forward.”
Morgan believes he would be giving back to his community more if he wasn’t so focused on his immediate needs. He works hard to support his family, including a 1-year-old daughter named Justice. Since his release in 2014, he also founded a nonprofit that helps guide underprivileged young men in the transition from childhood to adulthood.
Still, he feels he could be doing more.
“You know, it’s hard to look in hindsight,” he said. “But … I’m quite sure I’d have been successful in being in more of a position of a 44-year-old man. I’m like a 24-year-old man now, as far as my life and accomplishments are concerned. … I would like to be in a position of guidance, but I’m not. I’m in the position of a young person when I shouldn’t be.”
Looking Ahead: The Path to Correcting Irreparable Loss
Glenn Davis, who I met along with Larry Delmore at the gravestone of their co-defendant and cousin, Terrence Meyers, believes there is no number that can properly compensate someone for “taking their life.” Davis spent over 14 years in Angola while Delmore and Meyers spent 16, all three of them for a murder they did not commit. Meyers passed away in 2012, a few years after his release.
When Innocence Project New Orleans signed onto the case in 2002, they discovered the prosecution had hidden key evidence relating to the three men’s innocence.
Though Davis and Delmore feel they deserve financial stability at the very least, they force themselves to be realistic about what to expect, trying to stay focused on the bigger picture.
“Knowing Louisiana is not one of the richest states in the country, you know, $50,000 a year with no cap… we would be cool with that. We would be comfortable with that. We’re not trying to break the bank. We’re not trying to break the state.”
But, Davis added, someone has to be held accountable for what the state did to them.
“So, you know, take the accountability and say, ‘Well, OK, this is what I do for you guys,” he said. “I’m going to pass that [HB 92]. And hopefully that’ll help you guys find some kind of closure with what the state of Louisiana did to y’all.’”
Delmore and Davis, who finish each other’s sentences, maintain hope despite their loss, joking about the no-frills way they live versus how their community perceives their situation.
“They think we’re millionaires now,” said Davis, referencing the common assumption that most exonerees are well compensated for the state’s mistake.
They broke out into laughter at this, sharing a moment of understanding between them. Then Glenn paused, his voice and face sinking just slightly, taking on a somber tone.
“It hurted, boy,” he said quietly.