Monday, February 11, 2013

Remembering why Texas increased exoneree compensation

Mike Ward at the Austin Statesman reported that "the state has paid more than $65 million to 89 wrongfully convicted people since 1992," and that "some lawmakers are questioning whether Texas’ compensation system [for exonerees] is too generous, at a time when schools, law enforcement and health programs need billions more in funding." Ward's story - which otherwise provides a good synopsis of the main innocence-related issues in play at the 83rd Texas Legislature - doesn't directly quote anyone openly arguing for reduced compensation levels, and  to my knowledge no such legislation has been filed. I doubt it will be. True, the amount paid to exonerees has increased since the 81st Legislature increased compensation rates. But it's worth remembering why compensation was increased in 2009 to current levels - $80,000 per year incarcerated on a false conviction and a like amount in a lifetime annuity. (In the interest of full disclosure, I lobbied for that bill on behalf of the Innocence Project of Texas.)

When exonerees accept compensation they give up their right to sue for damages for what happened to them. Some exonerees who took compensation at earlier, lower statutory amounts - at first $25,000 then $50,000 per year incarcerated, with no annuity - fairly quickly ran through their money (after the tax man took a bite) and some became destitute. Most famously, exoneree Wiley Fountain was homeless and living out of a shopping cart on the streets of Dallas just a few years after receiving compensation.

As a result, most exonerees began eschewing state compensation and filing civil rights suits against the counties and law enforcement agencies involved in their false convictions. Juries, after all, were proving generous in such circumstances. Dallas in particular faced more suits than anyone else because they kept more old DNA evidence for retesting than most other jurisdictions. But really, every jurisdiction where a false conviction occurred was likely to find itself facing expensive civil rights litigation. A tort was committed against these men, after all - many years, sometimes decades of their lives were stolen by the state on false pretenses - and under Texas law they deserve compensation, or at least the chance to ask a jury to give it to them.

So, as a practical matter, the higher amounts in Texas' innocence compensation statute were considered at the time a form of tort reform - a way to avoid lengthy, ponderous litigation against local agencies while more quickly compensating people who'd truly been wronged. Reduce the compensation amount and it's likely the litigation resumes. So pick your poison.

Besides, the rate of DNA exonerations has somewhat subsided (though another one is expected out of East Texas this week), and the amount paid to exonerees is paltry compared to the "billions more in funding" needed by "schools, law enforcement and health programs." Certainly, the sums paid to people who've been falsely convicted are hardly why Texas doesn't better fund education or healthcare.


Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, now that we know and / or are reminded "Why" Texas increased the compensation of the chosen aka: Exonerable(s), we thank you for catching the vagueness and clarifying.

Speaking strictly as a (VOTS) and sometimes on behalf of other victims of the system that do not qualify for post conviction assistance consideration due to the Cherry Picking for Justice dilemna aimed away from Non-DNA, Non-Death Row, Closed / Inactive cases regarding claims including those of us unfortunate enough to never exhausted all of any appeals -
I personally think it's wrong to pay only a few of the wronged simply because they were chosen by the Post Conviction Assistance Gods based on the type of evidence, status of one's case & if a fee can be charged.
NOTE: Death Row cases should be automatic 1 million per year (80K dosen't send a good enough message to the taxpayers for allowing state sanctioned attempted murder). In reality, it's all death row with all of the deaths and all.

In my case, I'd trade the taxpayers' money in for a clear name & a public apology. Others may settle for revenge served cold while money only soothes a few & does absolutely nothing to prevent wrongful convictions, nor does it punish the rogue. The Lege monkeys chose to ignore punishing the rogue on purpose, lawyers protecting lawyers.

Yes, folks, it's cherry picking when you seek justice for a few while actively ignoring the majority. *(I.P.) - No DNA? Go Away, *(IPoT) - You didn't exhaust all of your appeals, just what were you doing in jail / prison?
*(TBP&P) - You failed to obtain the unanimous decision(s) of the three original trial officers agreeing that you deserve a Full Pardon - for innocence? DENIED! Next.

Anonymous said...

I wonder at what point the amount of the compensation along with the prospect for free family health insurance might create an incentive (and family pressure?) for false recantations by sexual abuse victims?

Anonymous said...

I wonder at what point the amount of the compensation along with the prospect for free family health insurance might create an incentive (and family pressure?) for false recantations by sexual abuse victims?

Bradley? Is that you?

/slippery slopes are slippery


ColeenSanLeon said...

@Anonymous 2:57 Good point. That really sucks though. I love how Craig Ferguson says, "It's a great day in America." every night on his show... especially with his foreign accent. But more and more I catch myself wondering, is it? God help us all :)

Anonymous said...

When the prosecutors do wrong, the taxpayers pay. Why aren't the judges and prosecutors liable for a nice bite of this? Maybe all their pension and retired health benefits ought to be transfered to folks whose lives they destroyed.

Anonymous said...

Rage, I don't think Bad-Brad would be stupid enough to say something that friggin stupid. Only a dumb ass would attempt to sling goofy "I wonders" around the house of GFB and think we'd let it slide.

Damn, we went off & acknowledged a goofball / highjacker and now he's never gonna leave.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, when time permits consider providing the public at large with a graph, spread-sheet or link showing the taxpayer the entire Compensation TAB.

As it is now, we just pay up without so much as taking a peek at it. Some say that willfully & knowingly paying for someone elses crimes aka: police & prosecutorial misconduct is equal to being in on it.

I say it's time for a Bill that puts the entire burden on the criminal(s) that conspire to wrongfully convict. Who's got the juice to pull it off? That's right, no one has & will ever step up to the plate. But we tried or did we? Thanks anyway.

*State as a whole contributes

*Individual contribution

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thomas and 8:54, politics is the art of compromise and if we hadn't compromised on the piece you're talking about, the bill wouldn't have passed at all. One thing I've learned in nearly two decades of criminal justice reform work is to try not let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, despite the bill passing via compromising and it only going in favor of those deemed to have qualifying cases (& those that represented them) you & the rest of the team truly deserve a congratulations and lifelong respect for the hard work and dedication involved in accomplishing this historic event.

If the recipient(s) haven’t thanked you by now, you’ll have to forgive them, and try to understand ‘Why’ the historically & systematically ignored VOTS of Texas feel left out again and don’t share ya’lls victory dance.

Believe it or not, the majority of us don't want money; we simply want to be included in the vetting process and rightfully receive the friggin justice that's been denied. A person’s name is sometimes all that's keeping him / her sane, lose it due to police, prosecutorial & bench criminal conduct and you get little compromise when there is no avenue for one to take when seeking post conviction relief due to disqualification and discrimination. Thanks.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Two decades of public service & personal sacrifice(s) (pro bono, I might add) is awesome and explains why you are our hero. I just ask that you consider utilizing your experience, ties & future spare time on authoring a bill aimed at: *Addressing, Including and Vetting of any & all claims of wrongful conviction despite: the type(s) of evidence, the status of the case and / or the year.

Going down in history as the human that launched the end of the great Cherry Picking for Injustice(s) era, will elevate you to pure stardom and entice me (and other VOTS of Texas / Taxpayers) to try to convince you to seek the Governor's Office. Texas needs a no non-sense leader and despite your bill choices, you would win hands down. Thanks again.