Capitol Alert

A tale of two exonerees: Their struggles to be paid for years spent in prison

An exonerated Larry Pohlschneider tells his amazing story

An exonerated Larry Pohlschneider got his first hair cut as a free man in Sacramento after his release in October 2015.
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An exonerated Larry Pohlschneider got his first hair cut as a free man in Sacramento after his release in October 2015.

When Larry Pohlschneider gets his check for $762,440, he already knows what he’s going to do with the money.

He’s going to buy a house, a 4x4 truck with all the features he’s always dreamed of, and a Prius for cruising around town. He can’t wait to give his daughter a wedding present. He wants to pay off his mom’s house and help out family members.

If Timothy Atkins gets the $713,700 he is eligible for, he said he would take the money “straight to the bank” so his four children and stepchildren could go to school and have some “extra change in their pockets.”

“I want the simple things, the stuff that I’ve been away from for years,” Atkins said. “It doesn’t take much to make me happy.”

Pohlschneider and Atkins were freed from prison with the help of Innocence Network member organizations, which offer free legal services to get wrongfully convicted people out of prison. Both are trying to get state compensation for the years they spent behind bars.

In California, compensation is supposed to help ease the transition from prison to the outside world for the wrongfully convicted. Exonerees can submit claims to the California Victims Compensation Board to receive payment.

But both Atkins and Pohlschneider are still waiting for money.

Pohlschneider was released in 2015 after spending 15 years in prison on charges of molesting three of his children and stepchildren, who were 8, 10, and 11 at the time. According to a case analysis from the University of Michigan’s National Registry of Exonerations, all three children had been previously molested by another man, who pleaded guilty to the crimes.

The children recanted their testimonies against Pohlschneider before trial, but the prosecutors continued with the case and Pohlschneider was convicted. Pohlschneider won his freedom after a court found his lawyer failed to bring in experts to testify that interrogation techniques used on the children were improper and that the prosecution’s physical evidence was suspect.

Atkins was exonerated after 23 years in prison on murder and robbery charges because a key witness who said she heard Atkins bragging about the slaying recanted her story.

Atkins, formerly of Los Angeles, has waged a nine-year fight with the board. Whether he ever will get compensation is unclear.

Imprisoned at age 17, Atkins regrets that he never got to go to prom, and missed out on what could have been a promising football career. He said the emotional toll of prison made his hair start falling out at age 25.

“It’s just that mental thing of being in there. ... It eats at you every day when you’re in prison, especially for a crime you didn’t commit,” said Atkins, now 48.

Yet he said getting out of prison in 2007 was only the first part of the battle. He struggled to adjust to society, and entered counseling for six months to cope with the transition.

I went in as a young boy and came out as a man.

Timothy Atkins, exoneree

“When you come out, everybody thinks you’re the same person, but my mentality had changed a lot,” Atkins said. “I went in as a young boy and came out as a man.”

Exonerees aren’t eligible for parolee services such as job skills training, education preparation and transitional housing. That’s where compensation is supposed to come in.

But the board that hears the compensation claims has discretion to decide whether exonerees should be given any money for the time they spent behind bars.

The board evaluates claimants’ innocence separately from their court rulings.

Wayne Strumpfer, chief counsel for the board, said some people are released from prison on technicalities – for example, errors made while instructing the jury. When these individuals are released, they are deemed wrongfully convicted, but not necessarily innocent. Thus, the board re-hears the case of each claimant to decide if the person was innocent.

“It’s not just proving that you are not guilty, but proving that you are actually positively innocent,” Strumpfer said.

Atkins’ lawyer, Alex Simpson with the California Innocence Project, called Atkins the “poster child” for someone deserving of compensation, but the board didn’t agree.

The board denied Atkins’ first claim for compensation in 2009.

Lawyers from Innocence Project groups across California have been frustrated that even when judges overturn their clients’ convictions, the compensation board can disregard the court’s decisions.

“A board who is not elected, with hearing officers who are not judges, say, ‘I want to hear from all those same witnesses and evaluate the criteria. If I differ from judge, so be it,’ ” said Linda Starr, legal director of the Northern California Innocence Project.

They began calling for changes and enlisted the help of state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, to advocate for legislation.

“There’s that nightmare that our freedom will be taken from us, that no one will believe our story, and that we will be the victim of great injustice. The truth is, it happens,” Leno said.

One of the key legal changes, Senate Bill 618, was enacted in January 2014. Now, if exonerees prove in court that they are innocent by a “preponderance of the evidence,” they can be granted a “factual finding of innocence.” Under SB 618, if a judge grants exonerees a factual finding of innocence, they are guaranteed compensation without a board hearing.

Though he initially opposed SB 618, San Bernardino County District Attorney and compensation board member Michael Ramos said he changed his mind once the law began to be implemented.

“I think the law change was an appropriate change. ... The judge hearing the evidence has a much better idea of the case, and is able to handle all of the issues better than us in a few minutes at a board meeting, especially on matters of factual innocence,” Ramos said.

After Pohlschneider received a factual finding of innocence under SB 618, his compensation claim advanced directly to the Legislature.

“Somebody told me, you’re getting a whole bunch of money. That’s got to be really good,” said Pohlschneider, formerly of Red Bluff. “I said, ‘Look, if you could go to prison under what I went in under and endure everything I went through, would you take that job?’ And he immediately said, ‘No ... way.’ 

Pohlschneider said he endured brutal beatings in prison that left him unable to work after his release. He believes he was targeted because he was labeled as a sex offender. He said he suffered broken ribs, concussions, skull fractures, punctured lungs and crushed bones. After one attack, he said, his right eye was hanging out of his socket.

68 percent of compensation claims approved after SB 618

Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill containing Pohlschneider’s compensation on July 1. According to board representatives, this round of wrongful conviction compensation claims, which totaled more than $4.6 million for seven people, is the largest compensation recommendation the board has issued since it started hearing the claims in 1931.

Since SB 618 was enacted, the board’s annual approval rate has skyrocketed from an average of 27 percent to 68 percent. Another bill that went into effect in January increased the compensation amount from $100 per day incarcerated to $140.

Still, Pohlschneider said he has had to completely rely on family for more than eight months. Without them, he’s convinced he would have been homeless. Every time he leans forward, a silver dreamcatcher ear clip swings haphazardly from his left ear. It was a gift a relative gave him on his first Thanksgiving out of prison.

“I think they made a mistake, and I’m innocent. It didn’t take all these hearings and votes to send me to prison for 23 years. Why does it take so much to correct a wrong?” Pohlschneider said.

So far, SB 618 has not helped Atkins, who has not been able to get compensation despite returning to court and getting a factual finding of innocence from the same judge that sent him to prison in 1987.

Atkins appealed his first claim denial, and the Second District Court of Appeal ordered that Atkins should have another board hearing. Between the appeal decision and the new board hearing, SB 618 passed.

But at Atkins’ second compensation hearing, the board found that SB 618’s compensation guarantee didn’t apply to him and the board was required to have another hearing.

Ultimately, the board decided on a 2-1 vote to reject Atkins’ claim again.

Despite supporting SB 618’s deference to court-determined innocence in general, Ramos voted against Atkins.

“After looking over the case, I believe that Atkins was involved in this case. The decision was a factual determination I made as a board member,” Ramos said.

According to board meeting transcripts, the two board members who voted against Atkins, including Ramos, came to their decision because the board considered evidence that the judge did not consider.

The standard rules concerning what evidence can be submitted to a trial court don’t apply to board hearings because they are not a criminal law proceedings. While one witness recanted, board members said an eyewitness identification that the court found unreliable was convincing of Atkins’ guilt.

“I was in disbelief. But then again, I had to snap out of it because nothing shocks me. I wasn’t shocked by none of the games they play,” Atkins said.

In a way, they are not innocent until proven innocent.

Wayne Strumpfer, chief counsel for the California Victims Compensation Board

Strumpfer, of the compensation board, said the board simply follows the standards set forth by the Legislature at the given time.

“To receive money, claimants have to prove innocence by a preponderance of evidence. In a way, they are not innocent until proven innocent,” Strumpfer said.

Atkins has filed an appeal and intends to continue trying to get compensation. He said the memory of his grandmother, who passed away while he was incarcerated, has sustained him through his legal fight.

“Thinking about her keeps me strong because I just keep thinking about our last conversation. She just told me to keep praying and be strong and don’t give up,” Atkins said.

Rachel Cohrs: 916-321-1046, @rachelcohrs