UPDATE: Georgia Senate delays vote on compensating Columbus man wrongly convicted of robbery

Lathan Word was arrested in 1999, freed in 2011

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 26, 2013 

UPDATE: The Georgia Senate adjourned Tuesday without considering House Resolution 73 to pay wrongly convicted Columbus native Lathan Word $400,000 for his 11 years in prison on a robbery charge.

Here's Tuesday's earlier report:

The Georgia Senate was expected to vote late Tuesday on a resolution compensating a Columbus man falsely imprisoned 11 years for a crime he didn’t commit.

House Resolution 73 would pay Lathan Rydell Word $400,000 for the time he spent in prison from Sept. 7, 2000, when he was convicted of armed robbery here in Muscogee County, until June 20, 2011, when he was acquitted during a new trial.

Word’s initial arrest was on Sept. 14, 1999, six days before he was to depart for Marine Corps boot camp. Word that day had heard police were looking for him and got in touch with officers to try to clear his name.

But his name was not cleared until a key prosecution witness serving time for murder refused during Word’s second trial to repeat the damning testimony that had put Word in prison. “I refuse to lie. I’ve been lying all along,” Contresstis Tolbert told a judge in 2011.

Tolbert, who once worked at Jennie & Joe’s Curb Market on Clover Lane, had told police Word was the robber who came into the store with plastic bag over his head and a handgun, and took $300.

The Georgia Court of Appeals overturned Word’s conviction in March 2011. Rather than plead guilty and be released for time served, Word demanded a new trial to prove his innocence. He finally walked free that Monday in June, about an hour after after Tolbert recanted his earlier testimony.

He was 18 when police arrested him. He was 29 when finally freed.

Now he lives in Troy, Ala., where by telephone Tuesday he said it took 13 months just to clear his record.

“I couldn’t get a job,” he said. “Nobody would hire me. It was ugly, at first.”

With no professional experience, he finally found work at a chicken processing plant: “My record got expunged in July of 2012. I got the job August 2012.”

It was the best he could do. “It’s real tough,” he said of the work. “But I ain’t got no choice. I ain’t got no work history or education to really get a job in a good field — talking about a career or anything. You know, it takes time for that.”

Word, who’s from Columbus and grew up in Andalusia, Ala., with relatives in both places, said he’s trying to make up for lost time with his family. His father and both grandfathers died while he was in prison, he said. He feels fortunate now to have time to share with his grandmother, who’s 77.

But he has no resources, no savings or investments. “It’s been a hard road for him, ever since he was released,” said Ed DuBose of the Georgia NAACP, who has lobbied on Word’s behalf. “He’s out, but he’s out without anything.”

So three Columbus lawmakers — state Rep.s Carolyn Hugley, Calvin Smyre and Debbie Buckner — sponsored a resolution to compensate Word. Filed Jan. 28, it passed the House on March 7. The vote was 97 yes, 58 no and 19 not voting.

McKoon, who previously supported it, expressed some reservations Tuesday afternoon, saying it has raised questions of whether the state equitably compensates others in Word’s predicament.

Ed Harbison, Columbus’ other state senator, said he backs the resolution, believing it has been vetted through the legislative process, including a state compensation committee review as well as consideration by the full House and by other committees within the assembly.

“Everybody has took a bite out of the apple, so to speak, and came up with this attempt at trying to make someone whole,” Harbison said.

Word initially sought $1.8 million, Harbison said. The state compensation committee considered his earning potential, had he gone into the Marine Corps, and whittled the total down to $400,000, Harbison said.

Word said no amount of money is going to make up for what he has lost, but being bitter about it won’t help.

“No one could ever make up for it, so there’s no need to cry about it,” he said. “I just thank God that I’m here and able to see my grandmother, on solid ground.”

We filmed this video when Lathan Rydell Word was set free after more than a decade in prison.

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