OLYMPIA — Alan Northrop anxiously waits outside a Senate committee hearing, his girlfriend rubbing his shoulders and whispering words of support as he prepares to sign in to testify about nearly two decades of freedom lost.
“Oh boy, here we go,” he says as the door opens.
Northrop has been here before, but he’s nervous every time. At stake is a measure that would compensate him and others like him who have been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned.
This is the third year in a row he’s traveled to the Washington state Capitol to tell lawmakers his story: He was convicted of rape and served 17 years in prison before he was exonerated by DNA evidence.
“It’s always intense,” he said before the recent hearing before the Senate Law & Justice Committee, the third panel he’s testified in front of this year so far. “I just have to get in the zone. It’s something that needs to be done.”
Northrop’s story starts in early 1993. While he was playing pool with friends in a tavern, detectives entered and arrested him on a bench warrant for failure to appear at a hearing on a suspended license, later questioning him about the rape of a housecleaner, who was attacked by two men in La Center while she was alone cleaning a house.
The woman was blindfolded and caught a glimpse of one of the perpetrators. Police later had her produce a composite sketch of that person, which was ultimately posted around town. Someone thought the sketch looked like Northrop and alerted authorities. His friend Larry Davis has blond hair, a detail noted by the victim, who also thought he looked familiar in a photo montage provided by police. Though she didn’t initially identify Northrop in a photo laydown, she later picked him out in a live lineup.
Northrop and Davis went to trial that same year and were both convicted of burglary in the first degree, rape in the first degree and kidnapping in the first degree; Northrop was sentenced to 23 years, Davis 20 years.
“I was in a state of shock,” Northrop said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
The measure that Washington lawmakers are considering this year would allow people who were wrongfully convicted to file a claim for damages against the state in superior court. Someone would have to show their conviction was reversed or vacated based on significant evidence of actual innocence. Once a judge or jury determines the claim is valid the court can award damages.
Currently, the only option someone has is to sue, but they are required to sue on some basis other than the fact that they were wrongfully convicted, such as police or prosecutorial misconduct. Davis and Northrop are currently in the midst of litigation against Clark County, though if this bill passes, under the requirements they can’t collect under both.