Kenneth Ireland, who was wrongly imprisoned for 21 years and subject to the constant threat of abuse in some of the nation’s toughest prisons as a man labeled a rapist and murderer, was awarded $6 million and an apology Thursday by Connecticut’s claims commissioner.
“It was a very thoughtful and kind thing they did. They took the time to figure it out,” a subdued Ireland said moments after one of his volunteer lawyers, William M. Bloss, emailed him the decision. “I am very pleased.”
J. Paul Vance Jr., the commissioner who wrote the memorandum of decision, offered a stark accounting of how the state measured what Ireland is owed for being incarcerated from ages 18 to 39, believing he would die in prison as the murderer of Barbara Pelkey:
For loss of liberty and enjoyment of life, $2.5 million; loss of earnings and earning capacity, $1.5 million; loss of reputation, $300,000; physical and mental injuries, $1.5 million; costs and expenses, $200,000.
“While this decision attempts to compensate Mr. Ireland for the time he was wrongfully imprisoned, no words or dollar amount will suffice to give him back the time that he lost and the misery that he endured,” Vance wrote.
He ended his five-page memo on a personal note.
“As the person who is tasked by the State of Connecticut with the assessment of damages for his claim, I offer my sincerest apologies to Mr. Ireland for the burden that he was forced to suffer, and I wish him the best of luck,” wrote Vance, the son of a prominent state police lieutenant.
A reporter read those words to Ireland over the phone.
“That is very kind,” Ireland said, his voice soft. “Those are very kind words.”
Vance also offered his opinion that the damages should not be considered subject to state taxes and that the Connecticut Innocence Project, which proved his innocence and won his release, should be reimbursed for its expenses.
Bloss said he would seek no compensation for his time, but a contribution to the Connecticut Innocence Project would be appropriate.
Ireland said he viewed the award solely for how it will allow him a brighter future, not as compensation for a darker past.
“Thinking about the past is sort of a wasted step,” Ireland said. “I can’t go back and change it, and I don’t want to go back and relive it.”
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy praised Ireland as worthy of the award.
“Kenneth Ireland is a man of extraordinary character who endured the unimaginable pain of two decades of wrongful incarceration, and yet is not only without bitterness, but is incredibly thoughtful, insightful and committed to public safety and service,” Malloy said.
Malloy appointed Ireland last year to a state job: As a member of the Board of Pardons and Parole, Ireland now sits in judgment on inmates who are trying to convince authorities they are rehabilitated and deserving of release.
He intends to keep working.
“I take this job very serious. It’s a very serious job,” Ireland said.
Two years ago, the same DNA evidence that exonerated Ireland convicted another man, Kevin Benefield, in the rape and murder of Pelkey.
Ireland said he will indulge himself traveling to some of the places that only existed for him in books, but he already has been on an odyssey through the criminal justice system.
He was convicted in 1989 and sent to the maximum security prison at Somers, where he endured gang violence and periods of administrative segregation. He lost a portion of a finger in one fight and sustained facial trauma, hearing loss and a shoulder injury
His conviction was affirmed by the Connecticut Supreme Court in 1991, and an initial attempt to use DNA testing in 1999 was inconclusive.
The next year, he was one of the prisoners transferred from Connecticut’s overcrowded system to Wallens Ridge State Prison in Virginia, described by Vance as “a maximum-security prison notorious for its poor treatment of inmates.”
Upon his return to Connecticut’s prison system, he was confined 21 hours a day to his cell.
The Connecticut Innocence Project, directed by Karen Goodrow, took up his case in 2007, requesting more sophisticated DNA testing on several pieces of evidence. It conclusively proved his innocence, and he was released from prison in August 2009.
Ireland and Bloss spoke to The Mirror in a conference call.
“When Karen Goodrow came to see you, did you ever imagine this day?” Bloss asked Ireland.
Ireland said he never imagined freedom. He was silent a moment, laughed softly and said, “It’s been a long, strange trip.”