Monday, 3 August 2009

During special session, help ex-prisoner, limit others

Many thousands of Virginians are hurting right now because of job losses and home foreclosures. It would be unprecedented, even unwise, for state lawmakers to hold an emergency session to relieve the troubles of a single individual when trouble is so uncommonly widespread.

Yet Arthur Whitfield's suffering is the result of an accidental - but undeniable - injustice imposed on him by the state court system. The Norfolk man spent 22 years behind bars after his false conviction on two rape charges. DNA evidence cleared him in 2004, and he received an absolute pardon from the governor this year. But senseless legal technicalities have prevented him from qualifying for compensation - money that is routinely granted to others who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes.

In any other year, Whitfield would be forced to fend for himself until the General Assembly meets in January. The hardships he faces are immense. Gas and water at his apartment were turned off this month, and his car has been impounded. His elderly father drives him to work each day.

Almost any solution to Whitfield's problems would be preferable to turning loose 140 antsy state legislators at the Capitol in the summer heat of an election year. The most obvious fix would be for charitable and community organizations to come to Whitfield's aid, with the understanding they will be fully or partially reimbursed once the legislature has cleared bureaucratic barriers now blocking state assistance.

But outside donations so far have been modest, and lawmakers are already preparing for an Aug. 19 special session to handle an unrelated issue regarding court testimony by forensic scientists.

Since they're meeting anyway, the argument goes, what harm is there in adding one more bill?

Actually, the risks are limited only by the imaginations of campaign-crazed politicians. Gov. Tim Kaine and legislative leaders originally agreed to limit the special session to one issue. The proposal to expand the session's agenda has encouraged lawmakers across the state to start drafting legislation.

There are likely to be bills attempting to reopen interstate rest stops, accept federal stimulus funds for unemployment benefits and require insurance coverage for autism services. Troubles with a state computer contract could be broached if lawmakers take up the appointment of Technology Secretary Len Pomata. Legislators will be tempted to rewrite budget cuts that Kaine is scheduled to announce Aug. 19. Authors of most bills won't expect to get a committee hearing, but news conferences will not be in short supply.

The primary advocates for expanding the session stand to reap political benefits by taking up Whitfield's cause. Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell is smartly seeking support among black voters, many of whom are concerned that so many false convictions affect black men. State Sen. Ken Stolle is running for sheriff of Virginia Beach.

However, it would be unfair to suggest the two Republicans are acting solely out of personal ambition. Both are attorneys whose records demonstrate a genuine interest in preserving the integrity of the judicial system. McDonnell is a longtime advocate of judicial performance evaluations. Stolle was instrumental in pushing for DNA testing that cleared Whitfield and others from false convictions.

It's unclear whether next month's special session will fix the legal conundrum over forensic testimony. A U.S. Supreme Court case next year may well undo any actions taken this summer. But legislators can make a tangible difference in the life of one man who so far has gotten only a raw deal from the commonwealth. Arthur Whitfield deserves their help, and they should take this opportunity to offer it.


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