Jon Eldan runs the only nonprofit dedicated to helping exonerees throughout the country — out of his Lower Rockridge home.
(page 2 of 3)
“I went and saw this movie; I was moved by it,” Eldan recalled. He said he was particularly struck by one of the exonerees, Vincent Moto, who was unable to expunge his record years after his release.
“I had been volunteering in San Francisco and knew about record expungement and clean slate work and I thought, ‘How hard can this be? It’s a DNA exoneration,’” Eldan recalled thinking. Through the filmmakers, Eldan got in touch with Moto. Although Eldan didn’t know anyone in Philadelphia, where Moto lived, he began cold-calling lawyers in the area: “I remember I said, ‘I’m a lawyer in San Francisco,’ and I probably named the law firm, ‘Do you have 90 seconds for me to pitch a great pro bono project?’”
Eldan eventually reached a former U.S. attorney who was working in commercial litigation, figuring he must know about criminal records. “I was able to send him links to show that I was not a crackpot,” he said, “like this is a real case. … And he said, ‘I’ll take it.’
“I thought, ‘Wow, I just got this guy a lawyer from across the country with a phone call and … a very small amount of work,’” Eldan continued. “The light bulb went off, and I thought, ‘We should be doing this for all of them.’”
(The lawyer took Moto’s expungement case all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court but lost. “He fought brilliantly, and it’s an indication of the difficulty of the law and the complexities about why this conviction under the laws of Pennsylvania would not be properly expunged,” Eldan said.)
From 2005 through about 2010, Eldan did occasional pro bono work for exonerees. He also got involved in legislative reform concerning compensation for exonerees. But he was frustrated by the lack of structure: “I didn’t know who the exonerees were — there was no unified or useful definition of them — so, where am I going to find these people?” He said the innocence organizations that were exonerating people didn’t know him and therefore weren’t likely to refer their clients to him.
In 2011, Eldan left his law firm and a few months later took a short-term job in Kabul, Afghanistan, on a USAID-funded rule of law project. It gave him time to think about his next steps when he returned.
Fortuitously, the National Registry of Exonerations formed in 2012. Currently a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at UC Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School, and Michigan State University College of Law, it was the first of its kind, providing detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989. Although the registry doesn’t include contact information, it gives first and last name, age, race, county of the crime, the sentence, conviction and exoneration dates, and other details.
“That was a game-changer, because it gave a stable place to at least start with the population,” said Eldan. “It showed me the scope of the problem. I was like, ‘I need to try something.’”
In the next year or so, Eldan gradually immersed himself in exoneree work. Because the number of exonerees is small — 2,150 in the registry as of Jan. 10 — and the people are spread out around the country, Eldan decided that doing the work by phone would be most efficient.
Initially, he started by asking the exonerees if they needed help with a legal problem. But as he talked to them, Eldan realized that what many of them really needed was help with health care.
It was the beginning of 2014, and the Affordable Care Act had just gone into effect. Eldan began helping a few exonerees evaluate their options, took them through enrollment, and then remained available through the year to help them make good use of whatever they had.
Eldan said that, by the spring of 2015, he had provided this assistance to roughly 200 exonerees nationwide. And he did it on an entirely volunteer basis.
“What he’s been able to do, from what I can tell, is remarkable,” said Samuel Gross, co-founder of the National Registry for Exonerations and a professor at University of Michigan Law School. “So far, he’s been a one-man operation, and has done an amazing job of addressing the needs of those who’ve been incarcerated.”
While Gross said there are other organizations that deal with pieces of exoneree work, “no one has done anything as extensive or as successful as what Jon has done.”
When asked why he thinks Eldan has been successful when others have not, Gross responded, somewhat jokingly, “He’s Superman. I have no idea how he’s able to do it.”
Walter D. Smith was wrongfully convicted in Ohio for a rape he didn’t commit and spent 12 years in prison before he was exonerated in 1996. Although he got a settlement of $250,000, he paid $41,000 of it in taxes.
Then in 2015, President Barack Obama signed the Wrongful Convictions Tax Relief Act, which made any money received in connection with a wrongful conviction tax-free. The new law was retroactive, so exonerees like Smith were entitled to refunds — with interest.
But Congress provided only a one-year window for filing retroactive refunds, and there was no mechanism for notifying potential claimants about the opportunity. So, Eldan took it upon himself to do just that. “I called up everyone I knew and every exoneree on my list, at that point probably 300, and then I recruited some help and went out and cold-called another 150 of them,” Eldan said.
Eldan found lawyers and accountants to provide free help with preparing and filing returns.
One of the last people Eldan was able to reach before the deadline was Smith, who lives in Columbus, Ohio. “When he found me, I was skeptical because everyone rips everyone off out here,” said Smith.
With just four days before the filing deadline, Smith didn’t have time to check out who Eldan was. So, he asked him, “‘Are you legit?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I’m legit.’”
They moved quickly, and with help from a volunteer tax preparer, Smith filed just in time. “I got a refund plus interest,” he said. “I got $76,000.”
Smith, 60, said the money allowed him to pay down some of the debt he incurred while taking care of his mother, but he’s still struggling financially. He said that since his ordeal, Eldan has been one of the only people who has helped him. He also helped him pick a health insurance plan. “Jon is a guardian angel sent from heaven,” Smith said. “Some of us need that ray of hope — who is genuine, honest, sincere, and trustworthy. He is one of those people.”
In the last couple decades, several factors — including advancements in DNA technology and the revelation of false accusations, mistaken witness identification, false or misleading forensic evidence, official misconduct, and inadequate legal defense — have been responsible for opening the door for exonerations of innocent men and women who’ve spent years — sometimes decades — in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. And many of them leave prison needing significant help.
“Most of them have lost lots of family and support people,” said Linda Starr, executive director of the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University Law School. “They get out and many of them suffer from PTSD, because they were wrongfully incarcerated for so many years. … They get out with many health needs and mental health needs. They’re now beyond the prime of their life, so they need schooling, education, training. They need jobs — to the extent they’re able to work. Some have lost their ability to work because of health reasons or PTSD or because of their age.”