OLYMPIA — Alan Northrop anxiously waits outside a Senate committee hearing, his girlfriend rubbing his shoulders and whispering words of support as he prepares to sign in to testify about nearly two decades of freedom lost.
“Oh boy, here we go,” he says as the door opens.
Northrop has been here before, but he’s nervous every time. At stake is a measure that would compensate him and others like him who have been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned.
This is the third year in a row he’s traveled to the Washington state Capitol to tell lawmakers his story: He was convicted of rape and served 17 years in prison before he was exonerated by DNA evidence.
“It’s always intense,” he said before the recent hearing before the Senate Law & Justice Committee, the third panel he’s testified in front of this year so far. “I just have to get in the zone. It’s something that needs to be done.”
Northrop’s story starts in early 1993. While playing pool with friends, detectives entered the tavern he was in and arrested him on a bench warrant for failure to appear at a hearing on a suspended license, later questioning him about the rape of a housecleaner, who was attacked by two men in La Center while she was alone cleaning a house.
The woman was blindfolded and caught a glimpse of one of the perpetrators. Police later had her produce a composite sketch of one of them, which was ultimately posted around town. Someone thought the sketch looked like Northrop and alerted authorities. His friend, Larry Davis, has blond hair, a detail noted by the victim, who also thought he looked familiar in a photo montage provided by police. Though she didn’t initially identify Northrop in a photo laydown, she later picked him out in a live lineup.
Northrop and Davis went to trial that same year and were both convicted of burglary in the first degree, rape in the first degree and kidnapping in the first degree; Northrop was sentenced to 23 years, Davis 20 years.
“I was in a state of shock,” Northrop said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
The measure that Washington state lawmakers are considering this year would allow people who were wrongfully convicted to file a claim in superior court for damages against the state. Someone would have to show their conviction was reversed or vacated based on significant evidence of actual innocence. Once a judge or jury determines the claim is valid the court can award damages.
Currently, the only option someone has is to sue, but they are required to sue on some basis other than the fact that they were wrongfully convicted, such as police or prosecutorial misconduct. Davis and Northrop are currently in the midst of litigation against Clark County, though if this bill passes, under the requirements they can’t collect under both.
The measure has already passed the House and a policy committee in the Senate and now awaits action before a Senate fiscal committee.
If the bill is passed, Washington would join 27 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government with similar laws. It wouldn’t be retroactive except for four individuals who fit the criteria of the bill, including Northrop and Davis.
Under the bill, compensation would be similar to the amounts paid by the federal government — a wrongly convicted person would receive $50,000 for each year of imprisonment, including time spent awaiting trial. An additional $50,000 would be awarded for each year on death row. A person would receive $25,000 for each year on parole, community custody, or as a registered sex offender.
The state also would pay all child support owed while the claimant was in custody, and reimburse all court and attorneys’ fees up to $75,000. In addition, in-state college tuition waivers would be provided for the claimant and the claimant’s children and/or step-children.
Northrop, whose youngest of three children was 2 when he went to prison, owed more than $100,000 in child support when he was released.
Northrop and Davis would likely not be free today if not for the work of the Innocence Project Northwest at the University of Washington’s Law School. The group was founded in 1997, and since then, seven men and one woman represented by the lawyers there have been exonerated, including Northrop and Davis, who became clients in 2002.
After a long battle to get DNA testing in their case, the results, completed in April 2010, excluded both Northrop and Davis. Their convictions were overturned and Northrop was released from prison. Davis had already served his full sentence — cut short under a previously established early release date. They were exonerated in July of that same year when prosecutors decided not to re-file charges.
In her order vacating the convictions, Clark County Judge Diane Woolard wrote that based on the new evidence, it was “reasonable to presume that a new jury would more likely than not conclude that neither Mr. Davis nor Mr. Northrop perpetrated this crime.”
One of the people who always joins Northrop or Davis at the public hearings is Lara Zarowsky, the policy director for the Innocence Project. She sits next to them while they testify and accompanies them as they talk to lawmakers.
“To me, the most rewarding part is also the biggest responsibility, and that’s helping these individuals have hope,” she said.
Rep. Tina Orwall, a Democrat from Normandy Park, first heard about the case of Northrop and Davis after reading a newspaper article in 2010 after their release, and said she was surprised to learn there wasn’t already a compensation plan in place. Similar bills introduced in prior years had never gained traction.
She met with Northrop later that fall, and introduced her first bill in 2011. This is the third legislative session that Orwall has sponsored this measure.
“We need to acknowledge when we’ve done harm,” she said.
Just before the House voted on the bill last month, Orwall told colleagues that of all of the measures she has been involved with, “none have impacted me as much as the bill before you.”
The bill passed on a 95-2 vote, after which, Orwall sat at her desk on the House floor and wiped away tears.
She considers this effort one of her top priorities this legislative session, the bill that “is the one I wake up worrying about.”
“I want us to do the right thing,” she said.
The victim has never spoken publicly about the crime or about the exoneration of Davis and Northrop. Zarowsky said to her knowledge, she has not recanted her identification. Clark County prosecutors involved in the case said she won’t talk to the media.
Chief Deputy Prosecutor John Fairgrieve said in an email that a prosecuting attorney’s office decision “to dismiss a case as a result of insufficient evidence is not a determination that the defendant is actually innocent.”
Fairgrieve said determining innocence is not the role of a prosecuting attorney, and “in summary, we do not concede that Larry Davis and Alan Northrop are actually innocent.”
But he noted his office supports the concept of compensating the wrongfully convicted. The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys testified before the Legislature in support of the measure.
Tom McBride, the group’s executive secretary, noted between 35,000 and 40,000 felony cases are handled a year in Washington.
“I think we have a very careful and accountable system,” McBride wrote in an email. “But it would be foolish to not believe in the both the possibility and unfortunately a likely certainty of a wrongful conviction over time.”
Northrop was released from prison on April 21, 2010. The joy of that day was mixed with the reality of all that he missed.
“The hardest thing was not being able to watch my kids grow up,” Northrop told lawmakers.
Once he was back in the real world, the difficulty of life quickly presented itself. Northrop was lucky, soon finding work, but financial challenges remain.
“I live paycheck to paycheck,” he told the committee.
Northrop’s girlfriend of six months, Shawna Smith, said every hearing brings “a whole spectrum of emotions.”
“It’s exhausting to go through it,” she told a reporter, but, “I’m really proud of him.”