17 years ago, West Virginia wrongfully convicted Jason Lively of murder. Now, he’s suing the state for the years he spent in prison

Ace, a brown pit bull therapy dog, snoozes at Jason Lively’s feet as he caresses his neck under the table in a government board room.

Seventeen years ago, Lively was tried and convicted of murder. He spent 14 years in prison before new evidence freed him.

Now Lively is suing the state to see how much 14 years of a man’s life is worth – 14 years of birthdays, Christmases, weddings, funerals, births and more gone.

Lively’s attorneys, all pro-bono through the West Virginia Innocence Project, say he deserves millions of dollars during a two-day early October hearing before the Legislative Claims Commission, a special commission set up for the rare instances the state can be sued.

Normally, the commission mostly hears claims from people who bent a rim on a pothole or contractors who didn’t get their invoices paid. But the three-member panel is also tasked with deciding what, if any, a wrongfully convicted person is entitled to damages. The last time they did was in 2016.

A decision in Lively’s case is expected in the next two months. If an amount is awarded, the state legislature will have to vote on it before Lively would see any money.

Appointed by the Legislature, the commissioners – J. Rudy Martin, Andrew Cooke and John H. Shott – sat in silence as they heard how prison took an already troubled man and completely broke him during testimony in the Senate Judiciary Committee room.

His release in September 2020 was greeted with many smiles and tears. But just a few months later at a Christmas gathering, he started pacing his mother’s living room in a square box pattern, as he would his cell during the years he spent in solitary confinement.

His mother Kathy Hamilton recalled: “He looked straight through me, like I wasn’t even there,” before excusing himself to go outside.

Through the window, Hamilton said she saw her son walking in that same square.

His wife said Lively once went to the store to buy spaghetti sauce but came back in tears with no sauce. He couldn’t even function in a supermarket, she testified.

Jessie Roberts, his cousin and best friend, said shortly after Lively’s release, they remodeled a house together. He said just losing a measuring tape sent Lively into uncontrollable rage. Sobbing, he had to leave the job site for 15 minutes to collect himself.

“I don’t want to talk bad about him, but he’s broken,” he said.

Throughout the testimony, Lively would become overcome with emotion, breaking down in tears. At times, as the state’s attorneys cross examined witnesses, he would get angry. His attorneys would place a hand on his shoulder and whisper in his ear to keep him calm.

When he took the stand, his attorney asked him his name and where he was from. Tears welled up in Lively’s eyes. His face turned red. He patted his face with a handkerchief as his voice cracked from the pain that spread across his face.

“How much is a West Virginia coal miner worth?” Lively asked commissioners.

He talked about his mother having to move because the community thought he was a murderer. He said the state’s lawyers were lying and he was “so disgusted” with them.

The three commissioners sat stone faced as an attorney handed Lively a bottle of water. He grasped his shoulder, as he often did, and in a calm voice said, “Jason, do you need a break?”

The lawyer asked for a recess and the commissioners agreed. Commissioner Shott said Lively could be excused for the rest of the day, saying, “This is really hard on him.”

But that question, “How much is a West Virginia coal miner worth?” would be brought up again and again during the hearing.

Read the full article by The Register-Herald here