Where Arizona stands in fight for justice for wrongfully convicted

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Khalil Rushdan did 15 and a half years behind bars for a murder he didn't commit. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Khalil Rushdan did 15 and a half years behind bars for a murder he didn't commit. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Lindsay Herf, executive director for the Arizona Justice Project, says her team gets letters from inmates asking for help to prove their innocence every day and they’re just scratching the surface. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Lindsay Herf, executive director for the Arizona Justice Project, says her team gets letters from inmates asking for help to prove their innocence every day and they’re just scratching the surface. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
2016 was a record year with 166 exonerations nationwide. That's more than three a week. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) 2016 was a record year with 166 exonerations nationwide. That's more than three a week. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -

Imagine getting locked up for a crime you didn't commit. When the courts get it wrong, how do you make it right?

2016 was a record year with 166 exonerations nationwide. That's more than three a week.

Khalil Rushdan did 15 and a half years behind bars for a murder he didn't commit. 

“There were times where I gave up hope but I never stopped fighting,” Rushdan said.

When he didn't testify at trial in 1993, the prosecutor lost the case and went after Rushdan. Rushdan was sentenced to 25 years to life.

Things looked pretty dire until the Arizona Justice Project picked up his case. The Pima county prosecutor got disbarred for vindictive prosecution.

Rushdan won his freedom.

He was released just days before Christmas 2011. A gift he didn't expect, or quite know how to handle. 

"I was so far behind I didn't even know how to work a debit card! I didn't know how to work a cell phone. It was like I had to learn how to crawl all over again before I could walk in society," Rushdan said.

His mom, who got cancer while he was wrongfully incarcerated, died just months after his release. 

"Those are the things you can never get back," Rushdan said.

And the little girl he left behind, was now a mother herself. 

“To go in and have a child that's 6-years-old and come home and not only recognize, she’s all grown up, then also, wow, I got a granddaughter that's 5-years-old, about the same age as my daughter when I went in,” Rushdan said. Rushdan said it just didn’t seem real.

Lindsay Herf, executive director for the Arizona Justice Project, says her team gets letters from inmates asking for help to prove their innocence every day and they’re just scratching the surface.

"Every other day someone's being exonerated!" Herf said.

She said her non-profit team will only intervene when all appeals have been exhausted and there are at least three more years left to serve in a sentence because it takes at least that long to find justice in cases like these. 

“I don't know how you put a price tag on it,” said Herf. 

Some states are at least trying. 

Thirty-two states, Washington D.C. and the federal government all offer compensation for exonerees. 

From flat rates for every year of innocence lost, to social services like tuition credits, to job training and health benefits. 

Arizona offers nothing. 

Rafael Suarez who lost three years of freedom in prison before being exonerated spent days down at the state captiol this past legislative session trying to drum up support for HB-2346. 

"I shouldn't have to be coming here asking for justice,” Suarez said. 

State democratic representative Macario Saldate sponsored the bill for the second year in a row to try and setup a compensation fund for exonerees. 

He never got any bipartisan support.

"What I intended to do is give it some more publicity always with the understanding that Mr. Suarez could get somebody else to run it that would have more clout," Saldate said.

Maricopa county attorney Bill Montgomery doesn't think Arizona needs a compensation fund for exonerees.

"We all have an equal burden to ensure we are ethically and professionally prosecuting every case," Montgomery said.

He says inmates who get released from prison when prosecutors decide not to re-try them because of compromised evidence or other technicalities, far outweigh what he calls "true exonerees," cleared by DNA, for instance. 

"That's what the civil justice system is for and I think it's proven adequate for those in Arizona who really have had a case,” Montgomery said.

Try telling that to Suarez. He sued his defense attorney for malpractice and won a million-dollar judgment. 

His attorney got disbarred but filed for bankruptcy, so Suarez, never saw a penny. 

“It's just been horrifying. It's worse than a prison sentence!” Suarez said.

When he went in, his wife pregnant with their third child. When he came out, he was divorced and penniless.

He lost his home, his family, his parental rights, even his credit.

“I can't even buy a house, I can't even buy cars or get credit."

“When someone's been wronged, we don't expect them to take care of it, we expect society to help,” said Herf.

With forensic and DNA tests definitively clearing more prison inmates from years of wrongful incarceration, more county prosecutors are joining this fight for justice, reviewing old cases they thought were air-tight. 

Pima county, down in Tucson, has a conviction integrity unit. Maricopa county, the biggest in the state, does not. 

“If you don’t look for them, you're not going to find a person who's been wrongly convicted," Herf said.

Montgomery says he doesn't need a special unit. 

“Our entire office is a conviction integrity unit,” Montgomery said.

He says the state supreme court set up the ethical responsibilities and guidance for prosecutors on handling cases where an innocent person may have been convicted. 

"We were actually doing that before those ethical rules were put in place," Montgomery said.

As an example, he said that the Office vacated 14 drug convictions in 2013 following a change in law.

Those inmates didn't have to appeal- Montgomery said his attorneys went to the courts proactively to make it right. 

To put things in perspective a bit, last year’s record 166 exonerations nationwide, Arizona has only ever had 22. 

Rushdan and Suarez, are two who say, even if more wrongfully convicted cases get cleared, the state should and can afford to do more to find some sort of compensation for the years they lost.

"We're in 2017 and we shouldn't even be having these conversations,” Rushdan said.

Instead of waiting for justice for the years he lost, he’s found purpose in fighting for those who are still in the system, as a board member for the Arizona Justice Project and case manager with Sage Counseling, helping early release inmates transition back into society.

"I would like to say I represent all of those who are sitting in prison who want to do right,” Rushdan said.

Now he hopes our state lawmakers will recognize there is a price, of freedom lost. 

Rushdan has used his perseverance as inspiration for his new startup business Our World Universal selling Arizona pride shirts he designed showing the faith and pride he still has in a state united for progress, reminding people of an universal obligation to respect each other. 

He hopes to grow the company to be able to help with more real time solutions for re-entry projects. 

One of his main goals is to encourage the state corrections department to focus on preparing inmates for their future. 

"So, if I'm on the yard going to be released in 2019, prepare me for 2019, please. What they're learning now is for today not what they'll be exposed to in the future when they get out," Rushdan said. 

Something he wished he had behind bars.

And while he has every reason not to want to give back to the system that failed him, he is proving an inspiration for us all. 

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