When Alan Northrop went to prison, his son was 2. By the time Northrop was finally declared innocent and released, that son was 19.
"The hardest thing, in a nutshell, was just not being able to watch my kids grow up," Northrop said. After prison, he said, he is working to build relationships with his children, but "it's awkward. They don't know what to do. I don't know what to do."
With his 19-year-old son by his side, the former Clark County man told state senators in Olympia on Wednesday about the life impacts of being wrongfully convicted of rape in 1993. He was in Olympia for the third year in a row, asking lawmakers to allow state compensation for innocent people who are wrongfully convicted.
The bill was prompted by the case of Northrop and Larry Davis, Northrop's co-defendant who also spent 17 years in prison and was later cleared. The victim in the case had mistakenly identified them as her attackers, and DNA evidence examined years later proved their innocence, advocates of Davis and Northrop say.
"It's great being out," Northrop told lawmakers on the Senate Law and Justice Committee. "But I tell you what, I was lucky that I had a brother out there who took me in. I was lucky that I knew a lot of people in Woodland. … I got a job pretty much instantly, but it's only $11 an hour."
Before Northrop was sent to prison, he was working to start up his own excavation business. Since being released from prison 17 years later, he lives paycheck to paycheck. He also learned upon his release that he owed the state $111,000 in unpaid child support.
Before prison, his business "was going somewhere," he said. "Who knows where that could have went. I could have been very successful with that."
The legislation, introduced by Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, would allow Northrop to file a civil suit against the state and possibly be awarded up to $50,000 in damages for each year he served behind bars. For innocent inmates who were sentenced to the death penalty, that compensation would increase to $100,000 per year.
The bill also would allow wrongfully convicted people to receive $25,000 for each year on parole or each year they had to register as a sex offender. Those wrongfully imprisoned could be compensated for child support, and they would receive college tuition waivers for themselves, their children and their stepchildren.
They could be compensated up to $75,000 for attorney fees, and they could have access to programs that help inmates adjust to society once they get out of jail. Exonerated prisoners don't have access to those programs.
The state estimates that about one to three people each year might qualify for the compensation outlined in the legislation, House Bill 1341.
The federal government allows people who have been wrongfully imprisoned to sue for damages in the United States Court of Federal Claims, and 27 states in the U.S. have laws that allow the wrongfully convicted to be compensated in some way.
Under federal law, the wrongfully convicted are granted $50,000 for each year imprisoned. In Texas, they get $80,000 a year, and a bill before the Colorado Legislature is asking for compensation of $70,000 a year, said Tom McBride, head of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
Nobody testified against the bill on Wednesday. The measure passed in the House of Representatives this session and now faces a vote in the Senate committee. If it clears the committee, it also will face a floor vote in the Senate.
The state is facing a roughly $1.2 billion budget shortfall, and it also has been mandated by the state Supreme Court to spend more money on its education system.
Even so, supporters of the bill say compensation for Northrop and others like him is not too much to ask.
Long road to freedom
Clark County sheriff's detectives zeroed in on Northrop as a rape suspect because he resembled a composite sketch.
In the days after a housekeeper was attacked while cleaning a La Center home on Jan. 11, 1993, she provided investigators details for the sketch, which detectives circulated in businesses around northern Clark County.
Several people told Northrop that he resembled the man in the sketch. Some reported this to police.
Roughly 70 percent of wrongful imprisonment cases are caused, at least in part, by witnesses identifying the wrong person, Lara Zarowsky, policy director for the Innocence Project Northwest, told lawmakers Wednesday. The Innocence Project is an organization that helps exonerate innocent prisoners.
Northrop was freed from prison April 21, 2010, by Clark County Superior Court Judge Diane Woolard after new DNA technology pointed to different, unknown assailants. The new DNA testing was performed at the request of the Innocence Project Northwest in Seattle, which agreed to take on Northrop's case in 2001.
Prosecutors subsequently dismissed charges against Northrop and Davis in July 2010.