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Texas Now Requires D.A.'s Approval For Wrongful Conviction Compensation

by Matthew T. Clarke

An amendment to the 2001 Texas law allowing compensation of the wrongly convicted requires that people applying for compensation present a letter from the district attorney who convicted them certifying the person's innocence.

In 2001, State Senator Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, introduced a bill to allow people who were wrongfully convicted in Texas to receive $25,000 per year of incarceration up to $500,000. The compensation was conditioned on the person being able to document having served all or part of a sentence and having received a pardon based on innocence or relief from a court based on innocence. The new provision was added without Ellis's knowledge or approval.

Someone has slipped into state law in the dark of night a provision that says--even if you have a pardon--you have to have a letter from the district attorney saying you are actually innocent," said Ellis. It's ridiculous.

The ridiculous" amendment was included in the voluminous fiscal matters bill, a routine bill passed every legislative session.

Jesse Ancrica, Associate Deputy Comptroller, said the amendment resulted from a discussion about moving the responsibility for determining who should receive compensation from the Comptroller to a more suitable agency. We talked about using the attorney general or Texas Department of Criminal Justice--anywhere but here," said Ancrica.

The problem with this solution is that Texas district attorneys rarely admit having made a mistake, even when overwhelming scientific evidence proves the innocence of the wrongly convicted person. Consider the case of Josiah Sutton, a Houston man wrongly convicted of a 1998 rape for which he spent more than 4 years in prison. Sentenced to 25 years in prison, Sutton's innocence was proven after the Houston Police Department's crime lab came under scrutiny following a number of high-profile blunders and an inability of crime lab personnel to pass proficiency tests. New DNA tests performed in March 2003 exonerated Sutton. However, it took another 11 months for his pardon to go through, and now Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal refuses to issue the letter needed for compensation.

If I knew he was innocent, I would. But I don't know that now," said Rosenthal, ignoring the DNA test that excluded Sutton and the pardon based on innocence. If you give me some good reason to believe the victim was mistaken, I will probably send the letter.

That day will likely never come. Even in high-profile cases, such as that of Randall Dale Adams, falsely convicted of killing a police officer in Dallas; Clarence Brandley, falsely convicted of a rape-murder in Conroe; or Lionel Getter, falsely convicted of robbery in Dallas, the district attorneys still maintain the guilt of the wrongfully convicted, even in the face of confessions by the actual perpetrators. Why? District attorneys are elected to obtain convictions. To admit having made a mistake is tantamount to loading your political opponent's guns. If you are a D.A. it is politically-expedient to never admit an error--especially in writing.

Ironically, the failure to compensate the wrongly convicted may cost the State. Compensated people must give up their right to sue to receive compensation. Uncompensated persons have no choice but to sue and, unlike compensation awards, the awards in lawsuits are not capped. However, as past articles in PLN have noted, frequently there is often no one to sue which leaves the wrongly convicted with no recourse for having spent years or decades in prison for crimes they did not commit.

Ellis intends to introduce legislation to remove the new requirement and raise the compensation limits to $40,000 per year in the 2005 legislative session.

Source: Houston Chronicle.

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