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Texas Harasses, Denies Compensation to Wrongly Convicted

by Matt Clarke

Texas has a generous compensation package for prisoners who are exonerated, which includes $80,000 per year of wrongful incarceration, an annuity with annual payments in the same amount, free college tuition and free medical care. [See: PLN, July 2009, p.12].

However, some state officials are stingy with granting compensation and others have harassed wrongly convicted former prisoners for back child support.

Anthony Graves served 18 years for capital murder, including 12 on death row. He was released in October 2010 after prosecutors determined that he was innocent and had been unfairly targeted and convicted. However, because the court order that granted his freedom did not contain the words “released due to actual innocence,” Texas State Comptroller Susan Combs said Graves didn’t qualify for compensation, forcing him to sue the Attorney General’s office (AG) for a declaration of innocence.

The AG, while acknowledging that Graves’ case was “truly troubling and deeply compelling,” said the law didn’t allow for such a declaration. But the law did allow the AG to seek more than $4,000 in back child support from Graves – child support that accrued while he was wrongly incarcerated. The AG’s office began sending Graves monthly bills demanding payment.

Graves is not the only exoneree suffering from Comb’s strict interpretation of Texas’ compensation law. Ronald Taylor spent over 14 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. When he applied for compensation, Combs discounted all but three months of his prison time because he had been on parole when he was arrested for the rape, and the sentence for which he was on parole expired just three months before he was released. Of course, his parole would not have been violated but for his wrongful conviction. Instead of the $1.14 million cash compensation and annuity that Taylor expected to receive, Combs offered him $20,000. He declined.

“I really felt insulted when I went to prison for rape. That’s probably the worst crime you could get convicted of,” said Taylor. “But to offer me $20,000 to rebuild my life, man? Yeah, that’s an insult, too. It really is.”

For similar reasons, Combs cut $66,000 from the compensation payment for Billy James Smith, who spent 20 years in prison after being wrongly convicted, and reduced by almost $145,000 the compensation for Gregory Wallis, who served 18 years for burglary with the intent to commit sexual assault before being exonerated by DNA evidence. Both had been on parole at the time they were arrested and wrongly convicted.

Another exoneree, Clarence Brandley, 59, spent 10 years on death row in Texas for a murder he didn’t commit. The judge who presided over his habeas corpus hearing said that in 30 years on the bench, “no case has presented a more shocking scenario of the effect of racial prejudice, perjured testimony, witness intimidation and an investigation the out-come of which has been predetermined.” Brandley’s release from prison predated the state’s compensation law, so he sued for compensation and to halt child support payments – and lost.

Twenty-one years after his exoneration and release from prison, Brandley still receives monthly bills from the AG for back child support. His children are now 35 and 39 years old. A recent bill sought payment of $260 on a balance of over $12,600. Brandley can’t pay because he lost his job during the economic downturn. Since then he has also lost his car and housing, forcing him to stay with relatives.

Brandley said he would not have fallen behind on his child support payments had the state not wrongly imprisoned him. What does he do with the monthly bills?

“I just tear them up,” he said.

Taylor, Smith and Wallis appealed directly to the Texas Supreme Court through petitions for a writ of mandamus. Complicating the state’s position was the fact that compensation had already been granted to a man whose probation was revoked when he was prosecuted in the infamous 1999 Tulia drug sweep that resulted in hundreds of false arrests and convictions. [See: PLN, March 2003, p.24; Nov. 2005, p.21].

The state argued that probation and parole were different, but the Texas Supreme Court entered a ruling in favor of Smith on March 4, 2011, stating that freedom on parole was still freedom, and the Comptroller should compensate Smith at the full rate because he would have remained out on parole were it not for the wrongful conviction. “[The] restriction [on compensation] does not apply when the wrongful conviction is the cause of the person serving a concurrent sentence in prison,” the Court wrote.

Smith was granted compensation in the amount of $1,593,000. As a result of the ruling, Taylor and Wallis will receive their full compensation payments, too. See: In re Smith, 333 S.W.3d 582 (Tex. 2011).

Separately, Graves obtained relief after the Texas legislature passed a bill (HB 417) to compensate him for his wrongful imprisonment regardless of the wording in the court order granting his release. Governor Rick Perry signed the legislation into law in June 2011, which will provide Graves with a $1.4 million payment.

Brandley’s request for compensation was denied by the Comptroller’s office in May 2011 on the grounds that it did “not meet the requirements set in state law.” Despite being exonerated, the court order granting Brandley’s release did not say he was being freed “on the basis of actual innocence”; also, he had filed for compensation beyond the three-year statutory time period in which to do so.

As for the Texas AG’s office dunning exonerees for back child support payments, a law enacted in 2007 makes the state responsible for child support for persons who are wrongly convicted and incarcerated. Apparently, however, that statute is not being applied retroactively.

Sources: Austin American-Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Radio Station KPFT’s Prison Show,

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Related legal case

In re Smith