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RI takes steps to compensate wrongfully imprisoned, but exoneree says it’s ‘not about the money’

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Imagine being imprisoned for a crime you didn’t commit.

It’s a reality a handful of Rhode Islanders have lived through.

According to a 2018 study, 6% of people in the general prison population are there on wrongful conviction — that’s tens of thousands of Americans. But Rhode Island now joins dozens of other states that allow them to be compensated for the years they can never get back.

Kimberly Mawson spent close to three years at the ACI and tells 12 News it was a lot to handle.

“I still battle with it all the time,” Mawson said. “They put the wrong person in prison.”

Mawson was convicted in 2007 of killing her infant daughter Jade five years prior. She said her memories of Jade got her through her time behind bars.

“She was the perfect baby,” she said. “She was always happy. Beautiful, tall, creative, strong.”

It was 2010 when new evidence surfaced, implicating Mawson’s then-boyfriend in the crime, though he was never charged.

Mawson was released on bond and the R.I. Attorney General’s office dropped the charges against her in 2012.

Scott Hornoff also knows firsthand the pain of being jailed for a crime he didn’t commit.

“There are thousands of innocent people in prison,” he said.

Hornoff was found guilty of the 1989 murder of Victoria Cushman and was sentenced to life in prison.

“It constantly felt like there was one gorilla on my back and another one inside me trying to tear itself out and screaming at the top of my lungs ‘I’m innocent,'” he recalled.

It wasn’t until another man confessed to the crime that Hornoff was released — close to six-and-a-half years later.

“Every step of the judicial system to protect innocent people, like you and me, failed me and my loved ones,” Hornoff said.

12 News sat down with Hornoff and West Warwick State Rep. Patricia Serpa in 2019 to talk about a bill that would compensate people who have been wrongfully imprisoned.

This year, it became a law.

According to the Innocence Project, Rhode Island now joins 36 other states and the federal government in implementing statutes that compensate those who have been falsely convicted.

The law only applies to people who have been sentenced to more than a year in prison and excludes reversals or pardons based on ineffective counsel.

If an exoneree is successful in petitioning the court, they would get tax-free compensation: $50,000 for each year served, and a proportional amount for additional months and days, paid for by state taxpayer dollars.

In Mawson’s case, that would be roughly $125,000, and for Hornoff, it’s more than $300,000.

Hornoff has since relocated to Delaware and plans to push for a similar law to be passed there.

“Wrongful imprisonment is something that happens to everyday people, and if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody,” he explained.

The National Registry of Exonerations lists six Rhode Islanders who have been exonerated since 2003, including Mawson and Hornoff, though the Innocent Project said it doesn’t mean all of them will petition in court or meet the criteria of the bill.

Mawson said if her petition is successful, she plans to donate most of the money she receives.

“It’s not about the money. It’s about the formal apology,” she said. “It’s about not having to carry around a copy of my exoneration anymore. Ever.”

Gov. Dan McKee has signed the bill into law but plans to hold a ceremonial signing next month.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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