Friday, 21 August 2009

Wrongly convicted Norfolk man to get $633,000 from Va.

Five years after he was freed from prison and nearly three decades after being charged for two rapes for which he was later cleared, Norfolk's Arthur Lee Whitfield has the kind of apology that often comes at the conclusion of civil suits: a financial settlement.

The monetary mea culpa - a compensation package valued at roughly $633,000 - comes from lawmakers who ushered legislation through the General Assembly's one-day special session Wednesday.

Whitfield, who recently told The Virginian-Pilot he has liver cancer, will receive $126,573 within 30 days of the bill becoming law. A schedule for disbursement of the remaining $506,294 will be determined by Whitfield's representatives, the attorney general's office and other relevant parties.

News of the legislative relief delighted Whitfield, who underwent chemotherapy Wednesday. He wore a baseball hat and a head scarf to the appointment because his hair has begun to fall out.

The money means he can stop worrying about the bills he's behind on, he said. And, he added, "I can do something for the people who have taken such good care of me - my parents, Mr. Fasanaro."

Michael F. Fasanaro Jr., Whitfield's lawyer, said part of the state money will come in an annuity administered by the attorney general's office.

"I'm happy something is going to come out of it," Fasanaro said.

Whitfield said he didn't know what he would use the money for, other than paying bills.

"I might try to move up, do a little better than I'm doing now," he said.

Whitfield spent 22 years behind bars before DNA evidence exonerated him in 2004.

Already freed from prison when he asked the state Supreme Court for a declaration of innocence, the court dismissed his petition on the grounds that only individuals who remain incarcerated are eligible for such a finding.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine pardoned Whitfield this year.

That legal limbo delayed action to compensate Whitfield until this year, said Del. Kenny Alexander, a Norfolk Democrat.

The versions that passed were carried by Del. Bob Tata and Sen. Ken Stolle, both Virginia Beach Republicans.

In other action, legislators approved changes to bring state forensic evidence laws into accord with a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

In the June 25 opinion in the Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts case, the high court found that presentation of a lab report instead of live testimony denied defendants their constitutional right to confront an accuser. Current law allows prosecutors to use a forensic lab report as evidence at trial in the absence of testimony from a technician who performed the analysis.

The short-term fix passed Wednesday requires prosecutors to give defense attorneys 28 days notice of their intent to use a lab report as evidence. Defendants have the option to accept that or demand the appearance of an analyst in court.

The legislation also allows for some flexibility in Virginia's speedy-trial rules to accommodate the scheduling of a forensic scientist to testify.

Sen. Thomas Norment, R-James City, sponsored one of those measures, which he described as a bill "not intended to be the ultimate solution."

Arthur Lee Whitfield smiles as he talks about $633,000 that legislators agreed to award him in Wednesday's special session in compensation for his wrongful imprisonment.

"This is intended to get us out of an awkward situation as expediently and efficiently as possible," he added.

A more permanent fix, some legislators suggested, is to hire more state forensic scientists. That could be a tall order, given Virginia 's financial condition.

Earlier Wednesday, Kaine said the state faces significant spending cuts to close a $1.5 billion revenue gap in the fiscal year. That figure represents a roughly $1.2 billion revenue shortfall in fiscal year 2010 and a carryover of $300 million in lost revenue from the previous year.

The state's current two-year, $77 billion budget was balanced with the help of federal stimulus money, which helped soften the blow of a $2.9 billion revenue shortfall.


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