Since 1997, New Jersey has compensated the wrongfully convicted with at least $20,000 for each year of incarceration. Lawmakers are considering raising the minimum to $50,000 per year and adding benefits, such as reintegration services, that are available to paroled inmates but not exonerated ones.
Pennsylvania has no similar law.
After serving 18 years for the murder of a McDonald's night manager in Duquesne, Pa., Drew Whitley of nearby Braddock left prison in 2006 with less than $100 earned working in the prison laundry, said Bill Mousher, an investigative reporter and director of the Innocence Institute of Point Park University, which worked on Whitley's case.
"Drew Whitley got absolutely screwed; he's got nothing," Mousher, an assistant professor at the Pittsburgh school, said last week. "I saw him last fall. He was not looking good. He's basically destitute."
David Shephard, the first New Jersey inmate to have his conviction overturned by DNA evidence, in 1995 received $250,000 from the state after serving more than a decade in prison for rape.
The money helped him repay his family for lawyer fees, court costs, and other hardships caused by his incarceration. It gave him a cushion to restart his life at age 33. He began working in maintenance for the City of Newark, later landing a job in family services with Essex County.
"Some of these states, these guys come out and they don't have anything. . . . They don't even have any skills as far as getting a job," said Shephard, 50, of Newark. "It's almost like you want to make this person angrier than he already is. . . . A few of them even commit suicide because they have nothing, absolutely nothing."
Twenty-seven states offer some form of compensation to exonerated inmates, according to the Innocence Project, which that has used DNA evidence to help free 303 people in the last 20 years.
Texas, the state with the most exonerated inmates (47), offers one of the most extensive compensation packages: $80,000 for each year served, $25,000 for every year spent on parole or registered as a child sex offender, money for child support payments in arrears, financial aid for college, and counseling and job services offered to all ex-inmates.
"They really try to look at all that was taken from someone," said Rebecca Brown, director of state policy reform for the Innocence Project.
But some states with compensation laws give "woefully inadequate" assistance to the wrongfully convicted. New Hampshire gives a maximum of $20,000 - total.
That's a pittance for innocent people forced to spend years in prison, Brown said.
"I don't think that there is one client of ours who doesn't have post-traumatic stress disorder," she said.
When asked about prison, Shephard's voice lowers. Some words catch in his throat.
"In prison, you see things happen to people and you want to help them and you can't," he said. "Early on, they made me sit and watch someone being brutalized to let me know that this could happen to me at any time. You don't sleep that many hours. You never, ever forget the images."
But with counseling and help from his family, Shephard put prison, and the aggression he needed to survive there, behind him. He sleeps well now.
Of the 11 Pennsylvania prisoners that the Innocence Project has helped free, only four have received compensation. That's because the only recourse for the wrongfully incarcerated in Pennsylvania is to sue in federal court. Most suits are unsuccessful because the former inmate must prove that law enforcement broke laws or violated constitutional rights during the investigation, Brown said.
Whitley, 56, was sentenced to life in prison on a charge of second-degree murder in 1989. Three witnesses to the killing of the 22-year-old victim identified Whitley as the perpetrator.
The person who shot the restaurant manager wore a nylon stocking over his face and left it at the scene. The stocking wasn't fully analyzed until February 2006, when DNA testing showed Whitley did not match the hairs found. A previous analysis had shown that saliva found on the stocking did not match Whitley.
In May of that year, the prosecutor dropped all charges against Whitley.
But, unlike parolees who have finished their sentences, Whitley did not receive any counseling, job training, or other assistance from the state. Had Whitley lived in New Jersey, he would have gotten compensation.
He could not be reached for this article.
Vincent Moto, a South Philadelphia resident who served 10 years in prison for rape before DNA evidence freed him in 1995, said he was still haunted by his time in prison and was angry that the state had not paid him for his hardship. Unlike with Whitley, the prosecution has not dropped charges against Moto, leaving him with a criminal record.
"They take your respect and dignity as a man," Moto said. "A lady spilled a hot cup of coffee on her lap and she got millions. Come on. I'm not looking for billions of dollars. If they could give my daughter a college scholarship, I'd take that. If they gave me the $160,000 my mom spent on lawyer fees, I'd take that."
State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), head of the Judiciary Committee, plans to reintroduce a bill that would give exonerated prisoners $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration.
The bill failed to move out of committee in the Republican-controlled Senate last year. Greenleaf fears a tight budget may sink it again.
In New Jersey, the bill to increase compensation has received strong bipartisan support, passing the Senate with only two votes against in October. Last month, the Assembly Appropriations Committee moved it on. It awaits action in the full Assembly.
The bill would include periodic review of the minimum award to ensure it keeps pace with inflation. It also sets stricter limits on the state's liability.
Any awards of $1 million or greater could be paid as a 20-year annuity under the bill. Any civil damages collected in court by an exonerated inmate would reduce the state compensation by that amount. Although the Innocence Project lists only five people as wrongfully incarcerated in the state, New Jersey has paid large sums to settle civil suits in the last decade.
Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R., Bergen), who cosponsored the original compensation bill in 1997, does not support the current one. The state already pays enough, he said.
"To the extent that we can, I think we should give you a new start in life," he said. "I don't think we should give you a windfall."
Ed Martone, director of public education and policy for the New Jersey Association on Correction, said that was absurd.
"I don't think anyone can honestly say, '$50,000 a year? Wow. I'd like to go to prison. Sign me up,' " he said.
Contact Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237 or email@example.com or on Twitter at @joellefarrell.