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17 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit - should state pay?

Alan Northrop says nerves caused him to fail a lie detector test. After he was picked out of a lineup, the case went to trial and he went to prison for a crime he didn't commit.
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Alan Northrop says nerves caused him to fail a lie detector test. After he was picked out of a lineup, the case went to trial and he went to prison for a crime he didn't commit.

Since 2008, four prisoners in Washington State have been exonerated through DNA testing and other evidence. Advocates for granting them compensation say it’s the right thing to do, even in tough budgetary times.

Of the four wrongfully convicted men, Alan Northrop did the most time behind bars. Now that he’s out, he’s trying to put the pieces of his life back together.

I recently moderated a forum at the University of Washington Tacoma,where Northrop was a featured speaker. As he stepped to the microphone, he hesitated, taken aback by the crowd of 400 plus who came to hear him. After all, he spent years in prison trying to get someone to listen.

The nightmare begins

In 1993, Northrop and a friend, Larry Davis, were charged with the brutal rape of a woman near Vancouver, Wash. Northrop was picked up by police because of his resemblance to a composite sketch of the rapist.

“Of course, I said I didn’t do it. I’m not the one,” he said.

Northrop says, at the time, nerves caused him to fail a lie detector test. Then, the woman who was raped picked him out of a line up and the case went to trial.

“She pointed me out in the courtroom and that was pretty devastating,” he said.

Northrop was convicted. He was in prison for 17 years. All of his appeals were denied. He had no other legal recourse.

A glimmer of hope

In 2001, Northrop wrote a letter to the Innocence Project Northwest (IPNW) at the University of Washington. The Project, under the direction of Jacqueline McMurtrie, agreed to take his case. McMurtrie says, like most of the cases they take on, there were a lot of obstacles to overcome. For one thing, they had to seek testing of DNA evidence collected at the time of the crime.

When the results of the tests finally came back, they proved that Northrop and Davis couldn’t have committed the rape.

In 2010, they were both exonerated and released from prison.

Life after exoneration

Northrop says it feels “awesome” to be out, but it’s been very hard to adjust to life outside the prison.

“Even little things where you have to make a decision, I’ll panic,” he said.

He says there’s really no way to make up for what he lost. When he was sent away, he left behind three children under the age of 5.

“My kids grew up without me. That disturbs me when I think about that,” he said.

He says he’s still filled with a lot of anger over being wrongly convicted and spending so much time in prison.

Music has helped him. He was a drummer in a rock band before he went away and is now playing again, in a band called Aqua Vitae.

“What happened is what happened and I’m just trying to get going again, you know, start over,” Northrop said.

No apology

Northrop was asked by someone in the audience if the prosecutor who put him away has ever apologized.

“No,” he says.

Northrop has testified several times in Olympia in favor of a bill that would provide financial compensation to people who’ve been exonerated.

A bill being considered in the current legislative session(HB 2221) would  give innocent people who’ve been imprisoned:

  • $50,000 for every year they were behind bars.
  • A guarantee of healthcare coverage.
  • College tuition waivers for themselves and their children

The federal government, 27 states and the District of Columbia have compensation laws in place.  Here's a link to list of  states with compensation laws:
State by state breakdown of compensation laws

Here’s an excellent documentary about Alan Northrop produced by Amelia Templeton:

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.