The Price of Innocence
Let's say you served time for a crime you didn't commit: How much is each year you lost really worth? A new law increases the state's payout to exonerees, but the process of getting compensated is its own form of punishment.
Christopher Scott and Claude Simmons were released from prison on Oct. 23, 2009, after serving 13 years for a murder they didn’t commit.
But the euphoria of freedom quickly gave way to panic: How would they make their way as free men with little but jail time on their resumes? A state law designed to help exonerees readjust would help, but only after they untangled reels of red tape to get their due compensation, clear their criminal records and find employment, housing and identification.
“It felt so pitiful just being let out of prison and feeling like you have to fend for yourself,” says Scott, who is 39. “You can only rely on your family members so much.”
Simmons and Scott were two of the first exonerees to be eligible for the benefits of legislation that Gov. Rick Perry signed into law in 2009. The Timothy Cole Act, named for a posthumously exonerated inmate, increased the financial compensation for Texas exonerees from $50,000 to $80,000 for each year they were wrongfully imprisoned. It also provides a monthly payment from that lump sum to act as a steady source of income and an initial payment of up to $10,000 to help exonerees get established right after their release. The legislation “was a great step,” says Michelle Moore, a public defender in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. “They just didn’t give thought to how it would be handled.”
Simmons and Scott couldn’t agree more. The two men were convicted of capital murder in a 1997 shooting death linked to a Dallas-area home-invasion robbery after being misidentified as the assailants by an eyewitness: the victim's wife. The University of Texas at Arlington Innocence Network and the Actual Innocence Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin worked on the case for years and eventually built a case to help exonerate them.
The trouble started soon after they got out. First, they struggled to collect the $10,000 the Legislature had promised to help with their reintegration process. Then they were unable to collect non-monetary benefits like clothes, money and temporary housing, which are available to paroled prisoners but not to those who never committed a crime in the first place. They finally received their compensation checks last week — six months after being freed.
“Exonerees aren’t given a dime when they leave prison. Many don’t have a place to lay their heads at night,” says University of Texas at Arlington Exoneree Project Director Jaimie Page, who helped get Scott and Simmons identification and other staples after their release. “If they have no family — and many do not — they are essentially homeless.”
The $10,000 reintegration payment was meant to combat this issue, says Kelvin Bass, a spokesman for state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, the lawmaker who added the reintegration language into the bill. Bass says West’s office has noticed some weaknesses with the Tim Cole law — namely, how that reintegration money gets paid.
The law calls for the creation of a new division within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to provide help and benefits to exonerees, including the initial $10,000 payment. But that division is not yet operational, Bass says. Meanwhile, while the measure says the comptroller’s office is in charge of dispensing the monthly compensation, it leaves the TDCJ responsible for paying the initial reintegration money.
The TDCJ acknowledges it is responsible. But agency spokesman Jason Clark says the $10,000 is deducted from the total sum awarded to the exoneree as restitution — which is overseen by the comptroller. He says the money doesn’t start to flow until the inmate is formally exonerated, not just directly upon his or her release. And even when the initial money does flow, Clark says, it can only be used for living expenses, though the department also offers case-management services to link the wrongfully imprisoned with needed services.
“It’s a great idea, but there is nothing in place,” Bass says. “And even with being awarded the compensation, there is no structure. Just handing somebody money isn’t enough.”
Bass says the same lack of structure plagues elements of the bill designed to help exonerated prisoners get medical care and counseling, services they can count on in prison. The new law requires the TDCJ to help exonerees get both, he says, but the procedures and programs have yet to be established.
Few exonerees leave prison without physical or mental health problems, Moore says, and they don’t have easy access to medication or counseling when they’re released. Many become paranoid, and some aren’t ever able to recover. “It’s all the stuff we take for granted that they are terrified of,” she says. “Some guys won’t go out at night. Some won’t go outside the yard without somebody with them. They just don’t want to be locked up again.”
Scott is adjusting fairly well but says he feels nervous about the simplest tasks — even driving. It’s understandable: It was when he was pulled over for speeding more than 13 years ago that he was arrested and charged with a capital murder he didn’t commit. He says he avoids getting behind the wheel at all costs. “You don’t know how it plays on my mind,” Scott says. “Anything could happen. They say lightening don’t strike twice, but I don’t want to take that chance.”
"It's like putting dues on your life"
When a court rules that a prisoner has been wrongfully convicted and orders him freed, that’s only the beginning of the bureaucratic nightmare — not the end. Clearing one’s name is a next to impossible task, as is proving one’s innocence to potential employers who run background checks.
In Texas, expunction removes information about a felony or misdemeanor arrest from the records in every court or investigative agency where documents or files may exist. Once the record is expunged, individuals can deny the arrest ever occurred, and any information related to it is permanently deleted from their records.
But the process of getting a criminal record expunged can take up to a year. An exoneree has to petition the district court, wait for hearings to be scheduled, get orders granted and then wait for all the agencies to delete the records. Former inmates wait two to three months to receive either a pardon or a writ of habeas corpus from the Court of Criminal Appeals. Only then can they file for compensation, which can take an additional two to three months to receive.
What’s more, expunction is not automatic in exonerations, and it only removes criminal records from government agency files — not from private data-mining businesses. Inmates often must use their compensation money, when they can finally get their hands on it, to pay for lawyers to help them clear their records. Scott and Simmons still have capital murder and sexual assault charges on their criminal records, and Moore says it might be another three to four months before they are expunged.
In the next legislative session, West will re-file a bill that failed during the 2009 session requiring the district attorney who originally prosecuted the exoneree to represent that person for the expunction process — a surefire way to speed it up and to save the exoneree money.
In comparison to other states, Texas is fairly progressive on the wrongful conviction compensation scale. Roughly half of state governments pay exonerees for their trouble. And less than a third of all wrongfully convicted prisoners nationwide have received compensation, according to an Innocence Project study.
Still, Scott says no amount of money can compensate someone who has been wrongfully imprisoned. “It’s like putting dues on your life,” he says. “I was a good father. I was always home by 10 p.m. to see my kids and help them with their schoolwork. I would have been a married man by now. They took all that away from me.”
Scott, who has found housing in Carrollton and has begun to reconnect with his family, is taking advantage of another provision in the new law that allows for 120 hours of state tuition for education. He starts at Brookhaven Community College in the fall and says he wants to study law and try to fight for other people who were wrongfully convicted.
“There are a lot more people in prison that need help,” he says, “and I want to do everything I can to help them.”
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