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James Ochoa recouped $36,000 after he was exonerated of a carjacking and armed robbery.
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Exonerees Racing Against a Tax Clock

The deadline for refunds is weeks away, but few know it.

Jon Eldan spends his days in his kitchen in Oakland, California, cold-calling, emailing and combing public records searching for exonerees whose lives he can change by helping them file for a special tax refund that most have no idea exists. In some cases, he has helped win back thousands of dollars, and in one case more than a half million dollars.

He just has little less than a month left to find those who might be eligible. He runs After Innocence, a nonprofit group devoted to helping the wrongfully convicted rebuild their lives. He is trying to get word out to defense attorneys and anyone who might know exonerees that a filing deadline for the Wrongful Conviction Tax Relief Act is Dec. 17.

“No one else was going out and finding these people, and their refunds were going to expire,” Eldan said. “When it comes to how we treat these people when they get out, we turn our back on them and let them down a second time.”

The Wrongful Conviction Tax Relief Act excludes from taxes civil damages, restitution or other financial awards that exonerees have received through lawsuits, settlements, special state awards or through state compensation laws in 33 states and the federal government.

Inspired by the 18 years a Connecticut man served in prison for a rape that DNA later absolved him of, the Wrongful Convictions Tax Relief Act of 2015 was heralded as a humane gesture, but many exonerees are thought to be unaware that time to file claims is running out.

Since 1989, there have been nearly 3,000 people exonerated of crimes through DNA results, false testimony and other evidence that came to light after convictions, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. According to the registry, the average exoneree has lost nearly nine years in prison.

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In total, Eldan said he has screened more than 400 exonerees and helped 13 people recoup a collective $1.6 million and eliminate nearly $500,000 in owed taxes.

Among them was James Ochoa, who recouped $36,000. In 2005, Ochoa had pleaded guilty to carjacking and armed robbery even though DNA excluded him from the crime. Prosecutors were sure he did it based on photo identifications, and Ochoa took a plea deal against his attorney’s advice after he heard the judge say he could face 25 years to life if a jury convicted him.

“I probably would have lost the money if not for him,” Ochoa said. “I work as an electrician, and I have a family of four, and my wife works, and I don’t know if I would have pursued it without him.”

Eldan’s advocacy work began in 2005 while he worked as a corporate lawyer in San Francisco. Inspired by the documentary “After Innocence,” he began volunteering to help find exonerees legal aid. In 2015, he started his nonprofit, offering exonerees free assistance with finding health insurance and other government and social services.

To find exonerees who may have been taxed on their compensation, Eldan focuses these days mostly on ex-military members. He has found that they are the most likely to have been taxed because they often received back pay after being wrongfully court martialed and convicted.

“If I can get the exoneree on the phone, I have a better than 95 percent chance of finding out if they paid taxes,” he said. “What drives me crazy is they’re supposed to get this money, so let them get it. I’m sure after the deadline I am going to find somebody, and I’m going to say it’s too late.”