A succession of laws, cumulating in the most generous compensation package for wrongly convicted prisoners in the nation, has left Texas exonerees stuck at different levels of compensation depending on when they were proven innocent. Consequently, some earlier exonerees now claim they should receive compensation at the current higher rate.
Initially, Texas had no compensation law for wrongly convicted prisoners, and the only way for exonerees to recover damages for the time they spent in prison was to file a lawsuit. Even then, Texas juries rarely granted meaningful compensation. Between 1985 and 2001 only two exonerees were successful, receiving a combined total of $50,970.
Starting in 1992, Texas exonerees could apply for compensation of up to $25,000 for pain and suffering, with their total damages capped at $250,000 – provided they had pleaded not guilty and received a full pardon from the governor.
In 2001 the compensation was raised to $25,000 per year of wrongful incarceration with a cap of $500,000. The compensation amount was increased again in 2007 to $50,000 per year ($100,000 per year if on death row), with no cap. And in 2009 Texas lawmakers changed the compensation statute to $80,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment and added a monthly annuity in the same amount plus free state health insurance and free tuition at state universities, making it the most generous exoneree compensation package in the United States. [See: PLN, July 2009, p.12].
The monthly annuity, insurance and education benefits were made retroactive to exonerees who received compensation under prior versions of the law, but the increase in the lump-sum compensation amount was not. Thus, wrongly convicted prisoners who had filed claims under previous versions of the compensation statute received significantly less than those who received payments under the 2009 law.
Entre Nax Karage spent over six years in prison after he was wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of his girl-friend, before DNA evidence led to his exoneration in 2005.
Comparing the $158,000 he received in compensation with the $493,000 given to Ricardo Rachell, who also served six years before being exonerated by DNA evidence in 2008, Karage said, “It’s not right, and it’s unjust. We all did the same time and went through the same situation.”
One problem with the lump-sum compensation payment was that much of it was often spent by exonerees to pay attorney fees and taxes. A person who has been incarcerated for a long period of time also might not have the best sense of how to deal with a large amount of money. Take the case of Willy Fountain, who in 2008 was discovered homeless and sleeping behind a Dallas liquor store five years after he received $388,000 in compensation for serving fifteen years in prison following his wrongful conviction for sexual assault.
Although Fountain admitted he had burned through the compensation money quickly, paying attorney fees, taxes and “living large,” public sympathy for his plight contributed to the 2009 amendments to the compensation law and the inclusion of the annuity for exonerees. Had Fountain been compensated under the current statute he would have received a lump-sum payment of $1.24 million plus the annuity.
Larry Charles Fuller, who was exonerated in 2007 after serving twenty years for rape, sought additional compensation under the new law. He already received $50,000 per year, $1 million in total, and has been getting $11,500 a month since the annuity statute was enacted in 2009. However, he would have received approximately $1.6 million under the current compensation statute. He filed a petition for writ of mandamus with the Texas Supreme Court, asking the Court to order Texas State Comptroller Susan Combs, who denied his application for additional compensation, to pay the difference.
Fuller’s attorneys argued that he is eligible for the supplemental compensation because he had requested it before the three-year deadline for filing the application expired, and the law does not bar exonerees from submitting multiple requests.
The petition was dismissed by the parties on November 18, 2011. According to the joint motion to dismiss, “The Comptroller has remitted payment to Mr. Fuller in connection with the application for compensation for wrongful imprisonment at issue in Mr. Fuller’s mandamus petition.” Fuller received a total compensation payment of $1.75 million. See: In re Fuller, TX Supreme Court, Case No. 11-0018.
“I certainly wish those who received less under the old law could receive at least as much as those who have been compensated most recently,” said state Senator Rodney Ellis, who led the efforts to increase compensation for exonerees. “Unfortunately, there has been consistent resistance in the legislature to make the lump-sum payment aspect of these reforms retroactive.”
Perhaps that is because there are so many wrongly convicted prisoners in Texas who have been exonerated: Thus far, over $42 million has been paid to 74 exonerees since 1992. And with the prevalence of DNA testing, that number – and corresponding amount of compensation – is likely to increase.
Previously, Texas officials have been criticized for denying compensation payments to some exonerees due to technical reasons and harassing them for back child support that accrued while they were in prison after being wrongly convicted. [See: PLN, April 2012, p.22].
Source: The Texas Tribune
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Related legal case
In re Fuller
|Cite||TX Supreme Court, Case No. 11-0018|
|Level||State Supreme Court|