A New York man who spent 18 years in prison for murder he did not commit will receive a $4.75-million settlement from the state, the largest award for a wrongful conviction in New York history.
Fernando Bermudez was arrested in a 1991 shooting and convicted the next year of second-degree murder, but a judge in 2009 declared him innocent after several witnesses recanted their testimony.
Bermudez filled a claim in 2010 under a New York statute that compensates innocent people who have been wrongfully convicted of a crime.
The settlement was reached in late November but not released publicly until this week.
"Of course, the settlement will never erase the injustice that I experienced as an innocent man in prison for 18 1/2 years," Bermudez said in a statement Monday. "The mental and physical toll, which began 23 years ago, continues for me."
Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that the wrongfully convicted often face considerable obstacles when trying to receive compensation for their time behnd bars. Thirty states and the District of Columbia have compensation laws allowing the wrongfully convicted to seek payments from the government. Twenty states have no such laws.
Bermudez was convicted in 1992 of shooting 16-year-old Raymond Blount outside a Greenwich Village nightclub the previous summer.
A year after his conviction, all five witnesses who identified Bermudez as the killer recanted their testimony, saying police officers pressured them into naming Bermudez, who was 21 at the time.
Bermudez said he was elsewhere with friends at the time of the shooting and did not know Blount.
In 2009, Justice John Cataldo of the New York State Supreme Court said no credible evidence linked Bermudez to the crime. Cataldo overturned Bermudez's conviction and declared him innocent of the murder. Bermudez, who was 40 years old, burst into tears. It was his 11th attempt to overturn his conviction.
The settlement was reached after five years of litigation and just three days before the claim was set to go to trial, said Bermudez's lawyer, Michael S. Lamonsoff.
Lamonsoff said he hoped the historic settlement would encourage other civil rights attorneys to aggressively pursue claims for clients who had been wrongly convicted.
"To know that you are actually innocent and to have to endure 18 years of torture, there is a special injury involved there," he said.
Bermudez has also filled a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of New York seeking $30 million in damages, Lamonsoff said.
Compensation laws vary widely across the country.
Wisconsin pays $5,000 for each year in prison, California $100 for each day. Texas pays $80,000 for each year in prison. Louisiana pays the wrongfully convicted up to $250,000, but distributes it in annual installments of $25,000 — a problem for exonerees, many of whom are elderly and emerge from prison with chronic illnesses.
"Success to me is not money," said Gregory Bright, 58, who served 27 years for a New Orleans murder he did not commit, then fought seven years for compensation. "It's how far the state is willing to make amends, how far they're willing to go to come to your aid."
The wrongfully convicted who resort to pleading their cases in legislatures and civil courts face stiff odds. In civil court, they must prove that police and prosecutors — who are generally protected by immunity laws — committed flagrant, intentional misconduct.