Change Urged After Controversial Wrongful Conviction Payments

The family of Jason Smith told reporters Friday they think the system in Connecticut for financial claims relating to wrongful convictions failed them and rewarded who they maintain killed Smith.

"To see that they’re just about to get millions of dollars, there’s no justice in that," said Raymona Holloway, Smith's cousin.

Smith was killed in 1996 in a shooting that New Haven Police characterized as gang violence. Four men were convicted of the crime the following year and served prison sentences until 2013.

In 2013, the prosecution's key witness was found to have perjured himself, fabricating testimony on the witness stand, and the Connecticut Supreme Court overturned the convictions.

The court ruled at the time that there was enough evidence to prove guilt but the problems with the witness were enough to change the fates of the four men.

The state's Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr., who provided Gov. Dannel Malloy with his resignation last week, approved wrongful conviction claims totaling $16 million, four million for each individual.

"I feel that it’s so wrong for somebody to be guilty and get paid for killing someone," said Robin Nelson, the mother of Jason Smith.

Republican Sen. Len Fasano, who voted for the system that created the existing system of financial claims for wrongful convictions in 2008, said changes are needed in the system to avoid something like this from happening again.

Fasano pointed out that the threshold for innocence compared to not guilty are different depending on civil or criminal proceedings.

In Connecticut, Fasano argues, it's too much power for one person, in this case it was J. Paul Vance Jr.

"Right now we need to fix it or this state could have many claims against it and have other wrongful conviction issues before it," he said during the press conference.

Rep. William Tong, (D - Stamford), who chairs the Judiciary Committee said he would be open to a discussion about some kind of appeals process for payments related to wrongful convictions.

The attorney for the four men who received the payments two weeks ago said in a statement to NBC Connecticut that the payments were proper because the men served time for crimes that the legal system has now established they did not commit.

"It is a foundation of American criminal justice that persons are innocent until proven guilty, and because these four men have never been proven guilty, they are innocent," said Victor Sipos, a Utah based defense attorney.

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen's office also opposed the payments, and filed statements with the claims commissioner but they were eventually disregarded.

Deputy Attorney General Perry Zinn Rowthorn wrote in a statement: "This office filed a position statement in the four related claims recently decided by the Claims Commissioner arguing that they should be denied for failure to demonstrate actual innocence as required by the statute."

He added that the current system for payments is meant for them to be immediate, and therefore not reviewable by the legislature or any other body, which is what some lawmakers want to see changed by the end of the legislative session.

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