A D.C. Superior Court judge ordered the District of Columbia government Friday to pay a record $9.2 million in damages to Kirk Odom, 52, who was wrongfully imprisoned for more than 21 years in the rape and robbery of a woman in her Capitol Hill apartment in 1981.
The amount, set by Judge Neal Kravitz, is the second – and largest – award in a case tried before a District judge under the District’s wrongful conviction law, which was first approved in 1980. It also is one of the largest non-jury awards in an exoneration case in the United States.
“Mr. Odom spent more than twenty-two years of what should have been the prime of his adult life behind bars for a crime he did not commit,” Kravitz wrote in a 37-page opinion that recounted Odom’s “profound” physical and psychological suffering over the decades that included several prison rapes, his diagnosis with HIV – the virus that causes AIDS – suicide attempts, depression and estrangement from his family.
“It was readily apparent to the court at trial that Mr. Odom is only a shell of the young man he was at the time of his wrongful conviction, and only a shell of the grown man he would have become had he not been wrongly convicted and unjustly imprisoned,” Kravitz wrote.
Odom was exonerated in July 2012 after DNA testing showed he was innocent and that only another man could have committed the crime for which he was tried and sentenced in 1982 and incarcerated until 2003.
The Washington Post has reported that Odom is one of five D.C. men convicted of rape or murder to have his charges vacated since 2009, based on erroneous forensics and testimony by an elite unit of FBI hair experts.
Odom’s case is among what is expected to be several civil claims against the District of Columbia by former prisoners exonerated through DNA evidence.
Since December 2009, DNA results have cleared Donald Gates, then 58, of a rape and a murder for which he had spent 28 years in prison. D.C. Superior Court judges have also exonerated two other men, Santae Tribble and Kevin Martin.
A third murder conviction, that of Cleveland Wright, was vacated, and his attorneys with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia continue to ask the court to declare him innocent.
In a statement, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine said his office is reviewing Odom’s order under the District’s Unjust Imprisonment Act. Attorneys for the city had argued in Odom’s trial in November that he should be granted no more than the $1.1 million in federal damages he already received, because his case was handled by the U.S. attorney’s office, which handles all criminal prosecutions in city.
“We have great sympathy for Mr. Odom,” Racine said. “However, we respectfully believe that the District should not have to pay the amount ordered in a case in which it was not involved in prosecuting or convicting the plaintiff, and in which the federal government has already paid Mr. Odom the maximum amount identified by Congress for his incarceration.”
In his opinion, Kravitz concluded that the D.C. Council clearly intended its legislation to offer remedies beyond what was provided by federal law.
Odom could not immediately be reached. He was represented by Peter Neufeld of the New York City law firm Neufeld, Scheck and Brustin LLP, and his exoneration claim was led by Sandra Levick, chief of special litigation of the Public Defender Service.
In 2007, Nancy Gertner, then a federal judge in Massachusetts, awarded $102 million to four men and their survivors. The men were convicted of a mob murder they did not commit.