Christine Stuart photo
Robin Nelson, the mother of Jason Smith, who was killed in 1996. (Christine Stuart photo)

Even before Republican lawmakers held a press conference where they called for his resignation, it turns out that Claims Commissioner J. Paul Vance Jr. already had resigned.

In a letter dated Feb. 12, Vance told the governor he planned to resign March 4.

“I have several professional goals that I would like to pursue that would conflict with the obligations of the Claims Commissioner position,” Vance wrote.

A spokesman for the Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Friday that they are already working to identify an individual to nominate to the position.

The Claims Commissioner gets to decide which lawsuits can go forward against the state and he is also able to decide the award, in some cases, for individuals who were innocent and wrongly incarcerated.

But his recent decision to award four men $4.2 million each for the nearly 17 years they spent in prison drew criticism from both the Attorney General’s office and Republican lawmakers.

Under a 2008 law, the authority to determine if a prisoner should be compensated for a wrongful conviction rests with the claims commissioner. However, the two men who have been awarded money previously by Vance were innocent and evidence led to the conviction of other individuals.

But the case involving Carlos Ashe, Johnny Johnson, Darcus Henry, and Sean Adams — who were convicted in connection with the 1996 shooting of Jason Smith — was different.

Vance awarded each of the men $4.2 million after they were released based on revelations of prosecutorial misconduct regarding a witness. Specifically, prosecutors were found to have failed to disclose a plea agreement given to a material witness, who later died. Based on that technicality, the men won their release.

Smith’s family joined Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano at the Legislative Office Building on Friday for a press conference. They talked about how hard it is to see these men, who still live in the same New Haven neighborhood, buying new cars and clothes when their son is still dead.

Robin Nelson, Smith’s mother, said she feels it’s wrong “for someone to be guilty and get paid for killing someone.”

“The law is not flawed,” Fasano said. “The claims commissioner misinterpreted the law.”

Fasano said the General Assembly needs to clarify the ambiguity in the 2008 by taking away the power of the claims commissioner to write a check without a public hearing and legislative approval.

Bernadette Barbour, a friend of Smith’s mother, said the decision to give these men who killed Smith $4.2 million is a “punch in the gut.”

“The law knows that they killed their son,” Barbour said. “They were never proven innocent. It’s just unfair. The pain that we’re feeling — there’s no words to describe it.”

She said they would like to see the law clarified.

News of Vance’s resignation reached Smith’s family while they were in the Legislative Office Building cafeteria and it provided some comfort, Fasano said.

However, changing the law will be a much more powerful statement.

Fasano said they need to fix the legislation so that these awards go through the legislative process.

The co-chairs of the Judiciary Committee briefly adjourned a meeting Friday to meet with Smith’s family, but the family had left before that happened.

Vance said it’s a tragedy when someone’s life is lost, but he believes he applied the law as it exists.

“I made a finding that the four men’s conviction was dismissed on grounds consistent with innocence,” Vance said Friday in a phone interview.

However, Fasano said the 2008 bill he voted for requires “a preponderance of evidence of innocence, not simply an item which requires a retrying of the case.”

Assistant Attorney General Terence O’Neill opined that Vance misinterpreted the law and that there was “absolutely no evidence as yet in the record to show that these claimants are innocent.” He said there was “significant prosecutorial error” but that it didn’t establish innocence.

Victor Sipos, an attorney representing the four men, told the New Haven Register that the family has every right to hold a press conference, but “there can be no dispute about the four men’s innocence or their right to compensation for the horrible injustice they suffered during the nearly 17 years they spent in prison for crimes they did not commit.”