By Scott Rodd
In April 2000, 23-year-old Floyd Bledsoe sat in an Oskaloosa, Kansas, courtroom awaiting the verdict in his first-degree murder trial in the death of his 14-year-old sister-in-law, Zetta “Camille” Arfmann. Throughout the trial, he maintained his innocence. But the jury entered the courtroom and declared him guilty.
Bledsoe was sentenced to life in prison plus 16 years, but doubts about his involvement in the murder lingered. The crime scene yielded little physical evidence, and Bledsoe’s brother, Tom, 25, had originally confessed to the murder before recanting and pinning the crime on Floyd.
After years of fruitless court challenges, Bledsoe was vindicated in a gut-wrenching twist: In 2015, Tom Bledsoe confessed to the murder in a suicide note before asphyxiating himself. Within a month, a judge vacated Bledsoe’s conviction and he was released from prison. The day of his release, Bledsoe recalls, was a mixture of celebration and mourning.
“Before I was locked up, I had 40 acres, livestock, a wife and kids,” he said. “When I was released, I had nothing … I lost my family, my job, my reputation — everything.”
Bledsoe found little support as he adjusted to life outside of prison, including from the state that locked him up for more than 15 years. A bill before the Kansas Legislature would make up for part of that by making him eligible for $80,000 for each year he spent behind bars.
A steady increase in exonerations in recent years, often a result of new DNA-testing capability, has prompted lawmakers in states like Kansas to consider legislation that guarantees compensation for those who are wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. And in the 32 states that have compensation laws, some lawmakers have sought to increase the amount of compensation exonerated individuals would receive, expand the eligibility for compensation or streamline the process for getting it.
It’s only just that states provide compensation to people who are wrongly convicted and imprisoned, advocates for the wrongly convicted say.
“When an innocent person is deprived of liberty because of a wrongful conviction, regardless of fault, the government has a responsibility to do all it can to foster that person’s re-entry in order to help restore some sense of justice,” said Maddy deLone, executive director of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization that specializes in wrongful conviction cases. “Fair compensation is part of that.”