Saturday, 1 August 2009

Support for wronged Norfolk man crosses political lines

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell has joined those urging the General Assembly to provide immediate state compensation during its special session in August for Arthur Whitfield, a wrongfully convicted man who served 22 years in prison.

Contacted by The Virginian-Pilot, McDonnell's Democratic opponent, state Sen. Creigh Deeds, said through spokesman Jared Leopold that he too supports "prompt assistance" for Whitfield and called for a bill in the special session.

While Gov. Timothy M. Kaine prefers to keep a special session's focus narrow - a feeling shared by many legislative leaders - he isn't expected to object to the inclusion of a claims bill for Whitfield.

Whitfield was convicted of two rapes in Norfolk's Ghent neighborhood in 1981 and sentenced to 63 years. He was released on parole in August 2004, when DNA results showed his innocence.

In the years since his release, Whitfield has struggled to get his life on track. A state Supreme Court ruling based on a technicality denied him a "writ of actual innocence," or a finding that he did not commit the crimes, and has so far prevented him from receiving any state compensation. He has worked a variety of jobs, his car has been impounded, and he has struggled to pay his bills. He's facing health problems as well.

The way for Whitfield to receive funds was cleared earlier this year when Kaine granted him an absolute pardon.

Last week, state Sen. Kenneth Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, announced that he will sponsor legislation to provide $445,703 in compensation for Whitfield, or about $20,000 for each year he spent in prison. The amount is based on a formula established by the state in 2004. Sen. Ralph Northam, D-Norfolk, has co-sponsored the bill.

The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus also has submitted legislation, sponsored by Del. Kenny Alexander D-Norfolk, and has urged the governor and General Assembly to take up the issue, as has Del. Sal Iaquinto, R-Virginia Beach.

In a statement issued Tuesday, McDonnell, a former state attorney general, said the Aug. 19 special session is the time to act.

"Extremely rarely is someone wrongfully convicted," McDonnell said in the statement. "If this happens, we must correct it promptly."

The next opportunity would not be until the regular legislative session in January.

Kaine last week called the special session to consider an amendment to state law dealing with how government forensic scientists are called to testify in criminal trials. The state needs to respond to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that places the burden on prosecutors to have crime analysts testify in court about evidence, rather than simply submit a written report. Kaine said legislative leaders had agreed to limit the scope of the special session.

"If every legislator brought their issue forward in the special session, the concern would be that the critical public safety issue that was intended to be considered wouldn't be adequately addressed," said Lynda Tran, the governor's spokeswoman.

Legislators will set the rules of the special session, including deciding which topics to consider, when they convene.

Whitfield's lawyer, Michael F. Fasanaro, said he has talked with several legislators since Whitfield's plight became public. Several donors, some of them anonymous, have contributed about $8,000 to help Whitfield as he waits for legislation.


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