Legislators voted Tuesday to move a bill to the House floor that would ensure restitution to spouses of the wrongfully convicted should the exonerated person die before receiving the money they are due.
It would act, lawmakers said, as a kind of insurance policy for families.
"There is no greater right than the opportunity for freedom," sponsor Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, said before the House Judiciary Committee. "When someone has that right taken away, they and their families should be compensated."
Though factual innocence cases are rare, and HB92 may only impact a handful of lives, Froerer said it’s a matter of fairness and equity.
In 2008, the Utah Legislature approved passed a law that requires the state to provide restitution to innocents who spend time behind bars for crimes they did not commit.
Jed Gressman would have been eligible for that money.
He spent three years in prison for an aggravated sexual assault before DNA evidence cleared him of the crime.
But in 2010, before a Juab County judge could award him the $220,000 in restitution, Gressman died in a fire. He was 41 years old.
Froerer, who drew inspiration from Gressman’s story, argued that in the event of an innocent person’s death, these benefits should be paid instead to the spouses who stuck by their husbands or wives through conviction, incarceration and eventual exoneration. Children were discussed, but not included in the final proposal.
Widow Jolene Gressman did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, but provided a written statement to legislators describing how her husband’s death, and the state’s refusal to award her the money, has affected her life.
The attorney general’s office had previously argued against Jolene Gressman’s receipt of payments and successfully petitioned lawmakers to bar relatives from receiving restitution after the death of an exonerated person.
She remains embroiled in a Supreme Court battle for the $220,000.
No one opposed the bill at Tuesday’s meeting.
"What happens is ... a family suffers, much like the wrongfully convicted person," said Davis County prosecutor Rick Westmoreland, who testified in favor of the bill. "It falls to the legal system to take care of those who have been wronged."
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