Friday, June 26, 2009

Houston jury awards $5 million for false conviction

A federal jury in Houston yesterday awarded George Rodriguez a $5 million verdict based on misconduct at the Houston crime lab that caused his false conviction. Said the Houston Chronicle:

George Rodriguez, 48, gained his freedom in 2004 after DNA tests discredited the findings of the troubled Houston Police Department crime lab on his case. By that time, he had served nearly two decades in prison. His father had died. His daughters faced abuse from men their mother lived with.

“Ain’t no amount of money is going to even my scale,” Rodriguez said after hearing the verdict. “I lost my dad and my girls have been through hell. I am grateful, but no money could replace what I lost.”

I find it hard to disagree with this interpretation of the jury's message:

“This verdict says what I think we all know to be true about the Houston Police Department crime lab,” said Barry Scheck, one of Rodriguez’s lawyers and a co-founder of the Innocence Project, which helped secure his release from prison. “They convicted innocent men and the city was indifferent.”

The Texas Legislature this year approved and the Governor signed into law an expanded compensation package for innocent people who've been falsely convicted (HB 1736 by Anchia/Ellis), a bill I lobbied for on behalf of the Innocence Project of Texas. But those affected must choose whether to accept the state compensation or sue, as Rodriguez did.

Under the new statute, Rodriguez would have been awarded $80,000 per year incarcerated (about $1.36 million) plus a like amount stretched out over a lifetime annuity, totaling a little over half the amount the jury awarded. But Rodriguez won't get paid yet and there's a significant chance the size of the verdict could be reduced by the Fifth Circuit on appeal.

The Legislature increased the amount because previously it was so low ($50k flat per year incarcerated, no annuity) that nearly all the innocent men getting out of prison chose to sue instead of accept the statutory compensation. Judging by the verdict in the Rodriguez case, the state has now increased the amount to where it's competitive, if not equal, with the amount they might receive in court.

16 comments:

JL said...

I wonder what the basis is for your assertion that the $5 million verdict is "likely" to be cut down by the 5th Circuit. My view is quite to the contrary, given that verdicts amounting to upward of $1 million per year of wrongful incarceration have been sustained by courts of appeals (1st Circuit and 7th Circuit). In Thompson v. Connick the 5th Circuit recently upheld a verdict of $14 million dollars for the plaintiff's aprox. 18 years of wrongful incarceration on death row. That case has been heard en banc, but I do not believe that the size of the verdict is viewed as the real point of controversy.

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that they increased the amount of funds that a person can receive without going to court. Maybe an attempt by legislature to quell the amount of lawsuits thereby stopping offending agencies from having to admit they are guilty of wrongdoing?

I doubt highly that the legislature is doing it out of kindness, nor do I harbor some feeling that deep down all elected officials want to do the right thing, as we have seen over and over they do not.

Soca said...

Sweet! Now the civil attorneys can get in helping secure the rights of the accused!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

JL, I didn't say it was "likely" to be reduced, but that there is a "significant chance" - greater than zero, less than "likely," IMO. I hope you're right, and certainly I could be off base in that speculation, but the 5th has historically not been friendly terrain for civil rights suits. My impression on the risk of reduced verdicts comes from discussions with civil attorneys over the course of lobbying for the compensation bill.

10:23, don't be too cynical. I think most in the Lege did just want to do the right thing on this. Tim Cole's family and many of the DNA exonerees came down to the capitol to lobby multiple times and I can tell you firsthand they generated a terrific impression.

It is also true, though, that some of the institutional opposition (e.g., the municipal lobby) backed off because the bill relieved burdens on cities, who are the ones who get sued because prosecutors are mostly immune. The Dallas delegation was particularly motivated on that score.

Boyness said...

The time for immunity for the DA is OVER. Make your decisions wisely and live with the consequences of your actions.

Reckless prosecution had got to stop. Win/Loss has got to stop. Judges only concerned about being appealed need to quit. The system needs INTEGRITY, COMPASSION and COMMON SENSE! Court needs to be where facts are determined NOT where bad acting lawyers grandstand and take the stage to enhance there EGO'S!

The City of Houston had might as well keep it's checkbook out, these aren't over!

editor said...

Who pays that $80K, the state, or the jurisdiction that wrongfully convicted? Seems like it would make a big difference.

Anonymous said...

Look for big money numbers to come out of Bexar County from Bill Fitzgerald's Urine Lab. Seems there needs to criminal charges when these criminal justice employees ignore the rights of others. Seems to me also like they should know better than anyone not use to bad evidence. I hope Bill Fitzgerald goes to jail.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

editor, the state pays.

Anonymous said...

Don't you love it when they say the "state" pays. Is it they don't know or don't want to know who really pays. Now think, does the state have money or do they get it all from you?

Anonymous said...

The state just prints the money and your grandkids pay. Problem solved.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

9:20, did you read this string or just shoot your mouth off completely out of context?

ALL government expenditures come from taxpayers or taxpayer-backed debt. I was responding to a specific question, "Who pays that $80K, the state, or the jurisdiction that wrongfully convicted?"

Anyway, perhaps you noticed that when George Rodriguez went to court, he was awarded MORE than the statutory compensation, and that money also comes from the taxpayers. The compensation bill in that light could easily end up costing taxpayers overall a lot less than civil litigation.

But hey ... don't let facts or logic get in the way of your opinions.

editor said...

I think the most obvious difference when the $80K is coming out of the local jurisdiction's budget (it's all taxpayer monies) but when I, as the DA, have to get re-elected and the opposition points out that my wrongful conviction(s) have caused local taxes to go up, this will be an incentive towards integrity. If it is coming out of the state general revenue, as Grits states it is, then there is less incentive for the local guys to play fair. I am no expert, but I have not seen much checks and balances for district attorneys in general as it is. It just doesn't seem fair for taxpayers in Travis County to be accountable for wrongful convictions in Smith County, for example.

Anonymous said...

The DAs get wrongful convictions and we can't get the DAs to even go to court (as is the case with the TYC bad guys). I don't get it.

123txpublicdefender123 said...

Grits, I actually believe that suing was the only way for Rodriguez to go because the DA's office refused to certify that he was actually innocent, and so, I don't think he could get compensation from the state without suing. I might be wrong about that, but that was my understanding. Honestly, $5 million is not nearly enough. Each of those jurors should have asked themselves one thing: how much would someone have to pay me for me to spend 17 years in prison where I would be known to all as a child rapist? They would have awarded a lot more.

Boyness said...

123txpublicdefender123 said...

Honestly, $5 million is not nearly enough. Each of those jurors should have asked themselves one thing: how much would someone have to pay me for me to spend 17 years in prison where I would be known to all as a child rapist? They would have awarded a lot more.

6/27/2009 07:23:00 PM
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AMEN!

NoMoreNoloContendere said...

Great topic and attitude to boot guys, no pissin matches, just the facts and a few justifiable clairifications.
Before you all burn off & hit another topic, maybe some of you can rant with me a lil more. Q.How many of the wrongfully convicted plead Nolo Contendere? Q.What is it gonna take to make the Assistant D.A's. personally responsible when it can be shown that they Knowingly & Blatantly took charges out in "Intake" when evidence does not support it & one ends up serving time including any jail time prior to trial? To include all cases past, present & future DNA or no DNA? Any thoughts on how to get the ball rolling because I'm ready to pounce. Talk is cheap but it is a start.