ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. – Johnny Briscoe spent 23 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. No one disputes his wrongful imprisonment, but there’s an unusual disagreement over whether the justice system owes him money for his lost freedom.
Briscoe was convicted of rape and robbery in St. Louis County in 1983 under then prosecutor George “Buzz” Westfall. DNA evidence 23 years later exonerated him.
Not only does no one dispute the matter, the court record even designates Briscoe as what’s called “actually innocent.”
There is a disagreement, however, about what should happen now. On one side, the Missouri Attorney General’s Office is fighting against Briscoe getting payback. On the other side, St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell says the law requires he get restitution.
“When you look at the statute, that was the intent of the legislature, and someone who lost 23 years of their life, I think that’s the least we can do,” Bell said. “We’re not talking about making anyone a millionaire.”
According to Missouri Revised Statute Chapter 650, “Individuals who are actually innocent may receive restitution.”
Lawmakers set the amount at $100 per day for each day wrongfully imprisoned. That means Briscoe would be owed about $840,000, which per state law would be paid out in yearly installments of $36,000 by the Missouri Department of Corrections.
Bell says his office was served with Briscoe’s request for restitution and he’s not fighting it.
“The prosecutor’s office, our job is not to just by default to oppose every motion by a defendant,” he said. “Our job is to administer justice.”
However, the AG’s office is fighting the restitution. The office declined our request for an on-camera interview to counter Bell’s position, asking us to refer to their court briefings.
According to those court records, the AG’s main point seems to be that Briscoe was released in 2006 and it’s too late for him to ask for this money.
Bell says the evidence doesn’t back that up.
“I think the statute is clear that if the legislature intended for there to be a statute of limitations to be place on it, then they could have done that,” he said. “As a matter of fact, they did the opposite. Initially, there was a year requirement to file within a year, but that was removed by the legislature.”
Briscoe and his attorney also declined to talk on camera, saying they don’t want to play this out in the media and would rather resolve the matter in court. So, we were unable to get answers to questions such as what has life been like after being freed 16 years ago and why did he wait so long to file for restitution?
We do hope to get those questions answered soon as this case will develop in court at any moment.