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Wrongly convicted Boston man sues state

Chris Burrell
Wrongly convicted Boston man sues state

Wrongly convicted of murder and imprisoned nearly four decades ago, 71-year-old Joseph Jabir Pope is suing the state of Massachusetts for $1 million in compensation.

Pope, who now lives in Boston, was released from prison late in 2021 and is one of 20 people seeking payments from the state for erroneous convictions. He and his attorney, Jeffrey Harris, had wanted to reach a settlement with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office without going to trial.

“I would have hoped that there would be a little more compassion and professionalism when it came to compensating those that were wrongly convicted,” Pope told GBH News. “But it appears to be another bureaucracy.”

With failing eyesight, Pope is unable to work. When he left prison in the winter of 2021, the only shelter he could find was an unheated attic at his siblings’ home in Roxbury, in a neighborhood he described as dangerous.

“Where I come from and where my family is, it’s nothing to hear gunshots and sirens all through the night and the first thing every morning,” he said. “That triggers other things, as well.”

His lawsuit filed in Suffolk Superior Court comes as lawmakers are weighing a bill that would remove the $1 million cap on compensation and offer immediate cash assistance to wrongly convicted people like Pope.

“When people are released from prison because of innocence, they come out with no money, no home, no job, no resume. They don’t even get the resources for job search and housing that parolees get,” State Sen. Patricia Jehlen, the bill’s author, told the legislature’s Judiciary Committee last month. “It can take years before they receive compensation.”

Jehlen led efforts in 2018 to lift the compensation cap from $500,000 to $1 million. Now, in addition to calling for removing any limit on compensation, Jehlen said that people whose convictions are vacated should receive immediate cash assistance of $5,000 plus an additional $15,000 once they initiate legal action to claim compensation.

As of June, the state has paid out more than $22.3 million to 47 people since 2005 for wrongful conviction claims, according to data compiled by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office.

Most cases settle before going to trial, but Frederick Weichel — who served 36 years on a wrongful murder conviction — rejected a $200,000 offer from former Attorney General Maura Healey’s office and instead took his compensation case to Suffolk Superior Court. Last October, a jury determined Weichel was innocent and ordered the state to pay $33 million in damages plus attorney’s fees.

That award was capped at $1 million, but the state also had to pay an additional $1.1 million in legal fees to Weichel’s attorneys. By alleging their civil rights were violated, some exonerees have won much bigger settlements from the municipalities where they were arrested.

Attorney Mark Loevy-Reyes, a member of Weichel’s legal team, criticized the Attorney General’s Office for dragging out the process to settle compensation cases and making people “jump through so many hoops” when a state judge has already overturned a person’s conviction and local district attorneys declined to re-prosecute.

“The commonwealth and the AG’s office was totally unwilling to engage in any meaningful settlement discussion,” Loevy-Reyes said, adding the state could have saved substantial money in legal fees if it had settled before his client’s trial.

Two GBH News investigations looked at the cumbersome process wrongfully convicted people face trying to win compensation and the challenges they face in their first months of freedom.

Another reform in Jehlen’s bill would lower the threshold to qualify for compensation from the state, removing the requirement for individuals to prove “clear and convincing” innocence of the crime.

Meanwhile, Pope is still waiting. Earlier this year he qualified for subsidized housing and also receives a monthly disability check of several hundred dollars, he said.

“Rage was my constant companion while I was inside. Now anxiety is my constant companion because nothing is guaranteed,” Pope said, sitting on a couch in his apartment. “I can’t even get my hopes up because they could be dashed in a moment’s notice.”

Pope spent more than half his life incarcerated, convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole in the summer of 1986 for his role in an armed robbery two years earlier during which Efrain DeJesus was shot to death.

The Supreme Judicial Court, vacating Pope’s conviction last year, found that a former Suffolk County district attorney wrongly withheld a memo stating that Pope was downstairs from where DeJesus was shot and that Boston police did not believe statements from DeJesus’ brother incriminating Pope.

Since being released from prison, Pope said he has struggled to adjust to everything from technology to transportation. He hopes a trial will bring him some financial respite.

“I have a daughter and a grandson of my own that I would like to help,” he said. “But for me personally, I need to have stability.”

Chris Burrell is an investigative reporter, covering criminal justice, housing, immigration and other topics at The GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting.

Joseph Jabir Pope, wrongfully convicted, wrongly convicted