Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Tulia drug war defendants access Texas' innocence compensation law

Here's good news for folks who went through something terrible:

Innocents convicted of crimes in Texas can be compensated by the state up to $25,000 for each year they wrongfully spend behind bars, and the first of the Tulia defendants, Kareem White, has received partial compensation for his wrongful incarceration. According to press reports, others, too, will be compensated. (See "More Tulia sting defendants could get money from Texas," Betsy Blaney, AP, August 28, and "10 from Tulia could be denied cash for jail time," Laylan Copelin, Austin Statesman, Aug. 29.)

I wondered about this possibility after the Governor issued pardons for most of the defendants - apparently the Comptroller's office makes the ruling, which puts gubernatorial candidate Carlolyn Keeton Strayhorn what's-her-names in charge of the decision. She's prolonged her moment in the spotlight by punting the decision on several cases to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Here's the question for the AG: Ten Tulia defendants seeking compensation were on probation when they were set up by discredited undercover agent Tom Coleman, so they were serving time on old charges, not new convictions. Wrote Copelin:
Strayhorn framed the issue around the case of Jason Paul Fry, who was serving a probated term for a drug-possession conviction when he was arrested in the Tulia raid.

"Technically, this statutory language appears to disqualify Mr. Fry from entitlement to any compensation," Strayhorn wrote. "However, the inequity is that it was his wrongful arrest and conviction for the Tulia drug charge that caused his probation . . . to be revoked."

The Tulia defendants who were convicted of selling small amounts of cocaine received sentences of up to 90 years, and many served up to four years before they were pardoned.

The state law empowering the Comptroller to compensate exonerees was only established in 2001, intended to repay people cleared by then-new-fangled DNA technology. But innocent people convicted of felonies of any stripe - like those wrongfully convicted in Tulia and immigrants set up in the Dallas fake drug scandal - can be compensated under the law. In fact, Governor Perry's Criminal Justice Advisory Council earlier this year recommended increasing the amount wrongfully convicted defendants could receive.

Few innocence claims have been paid under the statute because the law requires often-reluctant sign off from District Attorneys, who, like doctors, don't like admitting mistakes. But between innocence clinics popping up at Texas law schools, the sorry state of Texas crime labs, and recurring cases of innocent people arrested in drug stings like in Tulia, Hearne, Dallas, and elsewhere, one would expect the number of exonerated people petitioning for reimbursement to grow.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Wrongful incarceration".

Whew, haven't laughed that hard in a couple of days!