Sunday, May 20, 2012

Innocence compensation: Not just for DNA exonerations anymore

As of last week, innocent people falsely convicted but whose cases were overturned on procedural grounds rather than a habeas writ based on actual innocence may still receive state compesation, the Texas Supreme Court told the Comptroller. Reported AP:
The Texas Supreme Court ordered the state Friday to pay about $2 million to an ex-inmate who spent 26 years in prison for murder before his conviction was overturned, a decision legal experts said could set a new standard for when ex-prisoners should be compensated.

Texas has paid nearly $50 million to former inmates who have been cleared. But state Comptroller Susan Combs had resisted paying Billy Frederick Allen, arguing that his conviction was overturned because he had ineffective lawyers, not because he had proven his innocence.

The state Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Dale Wainwright, disagreed, saying the state's criminal courts had shown Allen had a legitimate innocence claim and he should be paid.

Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas, which works to free wrongfully convicted inmates, said Friday's ruling could open the door for more compensation claims from ex-prisoners.

"The floodgates are not opening, but what this will do is give a fair shake to people who are innocent," Blackburn said. "This is a major step forward in terms of opening up and broadening the law of exoneration in general."
In the interest of full disclosure, I work with Blackburn at the Innocence Project of Texas, though Grits, as a non-attorney, has nothing to do with the legal side of the operation. The AP story goes on to describe the implications of the ruling:
Texas' compensation law is the most generous in the U.S., according to the national Innocence Project. Freed inmates who are declared innocent by a judge, prosecutors or a governor's pardon can collect $80,000 for every year of imprisonment, along with an annuity.

What makes Allen's case different is that he didn't have an innocence declaration. What he had instead was a Court of Criminal Appeals ruling that reversed his conviction based on ineffective counsel and supported a lower court's finding that the evidence against him was too weak for a reasonable jury to convict him.

In effect, the Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest court in criminal matters, supported Allen's claim of "actual innocence" and he should be paid, the state Supreme Court ruled. ...
While DNA evidence has led to most of Texas' exonerations, those cases are expected to dwindle because DNA testing has become standard in modern investigations where such evidence exists. More former inmates like Allen — whose case has no DNA evidence — are likely to account for more compensation cases, Blackburn said.

"Billy Allen is a classic case where technically speaking you could say that he wasn't really exonerated because certain magic words weren't used," Blackburn said. "The Supreme Court has a much more common sense approach to innocence."
 Congrats to Mr. Allen and his legal team on the victory.


Lee said...


Grits, Recall a while ago that Ms. McCombs attempted to elude payment of a compensation claim by Mr Graves based upon the trivial and irrelevant wording of his vindication. It looks like the courts just took away her excuse not to pay him and many others.

Anonymous said...

Awful two faced of the State to deny paying exonerees. A criminal defendant is basically assumed guilty and starts to pay from the day of his arrest. When the State srewed up and in many cases used its muscle to hide it/cover up... They should pay and pay immediately and dearly just as the accused did...

As a commenter on another post pointed out, some motivation for not setting lots of cases straight is money. When money and saving face is more important than human life/liberty, well...

ColeenSanLeon said...

Any pardon? Hmmmm guess we'll see even less of them now? Do you think that inmates with cases that (potentially) qualify would find it easier to retain counsel now? I mean financially?

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, while this is possibly good-news, I'd like to remind everyone that the Pardon process has built in preventatives that include foregoing the installation of floodgates.

Silly but effective Loopholes and hurdels requiring 'Applicants' seeking one based on and for innocence to obtain unanimous agreements from the three original trial officers.

There is no incentive for the DA, the Sheriff or the Judge to admit to participating in coruption. The only claims that get attention and real consideration are the ones that the media, Senators & professors latches on to.

Good luck to those trying to get overturned. Those chasing a check will need even more luck. Thanks.