Although a man succeeded in overturning his felony conviction, he is ineligible to benefit from the law designed to compensate exonerated persons for their time served, the Colorado Court of Appeals decided Thursday.
In reaching its conclusion, a three-judge appellate panel determined the reason for the reversed conviction — a trial court judge neglected to issue instructions for ensuring a unanimous verdict — was the type of procedural misstep the Legislature did not intend to include under the Exoneration Act of 2013.
“The instructional error did not affect the presentation of evidence, did not keep important facts from the jury, and did not affect the jury’s ability to weigh competing evidence to determine the truth or falsity of the events surrounding the allegations,” wrote Judge Anthony J. Navarro in rejecting William Andrew Coyle’s application for compensation.
The Exoneration Act allows convicted felons to collect $70,000 from the state for each year of their incarceration, should their convictions turn out to be in error. There are several conditions for receiving the payments, but crucially, the applicant’s exoneration must be based on their actual innocence, meaning there was evidence suggesting they were “factually innocent of any participation in the crime.”
While other states allow applicants to argue their actual innocence regardless of the reasons for an overturned conviction, Colorado law makes a person ineligible for relief if their conviction was overturned solely due to “legal error.” The Colorado Supreme Court for nearly 100 years has recognized a distinction between actual innocence and legal innocence, declaring in a 1938 case that “a verdict of acquittal does not establish a status of innocence.”
A Washington County jury convicted Coyle in 2012 of attempted sexual assault on a child, following allegations that he touched the victim inappropriately on two occasions. However, jurors also acquitted him on another charge of sexual assault on a child by someone in a position of trust. There was no indication which charge applied to which alleged incident.
Coyle appealed, arguing the trial court judge should have required the prosecution to choose which instance of improper touching applied to the attempted sexual assault charge, or else tell the jury they needed to unanimously agree which act Coyle’s conviction applied to.
In 2015, a separate panel of the Court of Appeals agreed that jurors likely had convicted Coyle based on differing beliefs about which of the two acts he was guilty of. But in considering the panel’s order for a new trial, the parties to Coyle’s case agreed to drop the matter so as not to violate the constitutional prohibition against prosecuting someone more than once for the same offense. He had been incarcerated for 1½ years after his conviction.
Pursuant to the Exoneration Act, Coyle sought compensation from the state for his time spent in prison and on the sex offender registry, for child support payments that he incurred while in prison and for attorney fees. However, a district court judge agreed with the government that Coyle was exonerated because of a legal error, not because he was innocent. Therefore, Coyle was not entitled to have his claim heard.
During oral arguments for Coyle’s civil case in March, some members of the appellate panel grappled with how exactly the law was supposed to provide relief to the criminally exonerated.
“How often, if ever, do we ever say the defendant was actually innocent?,’” wondered Judge Jerry N. Jones. Navarro said the exclusion of people whose convictions were overturned due to legal mistakes “seems a very curious choice by the Legislature.Because it seems to give with one hand and take with the other by creating an illusion that you might get compensation, but shutting the door to the people who might be most obviously eligible, at least in the layperson’s eyes.”
Stephanie Scoville, first assistant attorney general, indicated there could be legal developments related to actual innocence that would render an exonerated person eligible for compensation: newly discovered evidence, DNA testing, or confession to the crime by someone else, for example.
“There’s no constitutional right to compensation because you were wrongfully incarcerated. So the General Assembly made very deliberate determinations about who could be eligible,” she added.
The Colorado Criminal Defense Bar has previously criticized the law for being so narrowly written that it “denies the overwhelming majority of criminal defendants in Colorado any practical opportunity to recover monetary penalties following the reversal of their convictions.” During the legislature’s consideration of the proposal, then-Attorney General John Suthers estimated that of the 47 exonerations in the preceding five years, “none of those people are likely to be in a position to prove actual innocence.”
As of January 2019, The Colorado Sun reported only one person had gained access to state compensation: Robert Dewey, the inspiration for the Exoneration Act, who spent nearly two decades behind bars for a rape and murder he did not commit.
The law was also the subject of an appeal that ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court. By a 7-1 decision in 2017, the justices ordered Colorado to return monetary penalties two men paid to the courts before their convictions were overturned.
”[O]nce those convictions were erased, the presumption of their innocence was restored,” wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the majority. Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., in a concurring opinion, noted that Ginsburg had not addressed the legality of the actual innocence requirement in Colorado’s Exoneration Act, apparently concluding that it posed “no constitutional difficulty.”
Ultimately, the appellate panel in Coyle’s case agreed he had not satisfied the requirement of actual innocence.
“No juror thought he was innocent of anything,” Navarro observed at oral argument. “They all thought he committed some act, we’re just not sure whether they agreed on the same act.”
David Japha, Coyle’s attorney, said he had evidence to demonstrate his client’s actual innocence. However, because of the method by which Coyle’s conviction was overturned, he will not have the opportunity to present it.
“I believe he should have been given the opportunity,” Japha said.
The case is People v. Coyle.