COLDSPRING — Megan Winfrey’s first Mother’s Day after being released from prison was a sweet mess. Her 7-year-old daughter, Danielle, served her breakfast in bed, leaving behind a colorful trail of cereal from the kitchen of her trailer home in this tiny East Texas town.
“There was cereal everywhere, but it was sweet,” Winfrey said with her drawl and a giggle. “And I love Fruity Pebbles, so I ate it.”
Winfrey, 25, had been behind bars since 2007, after she, her father, Richard Winfrey, and her brother, Richard Winfrey Jr., were charged in the 2004 stabbing and beating death of Murray Burr, a school janitor here.
In February, Texas’ highest criminal court acquitted Winfrey, ruling that the dog scent evidence prosecutors used against her was insufficient. Now, she faces the challenge of starting a life as a single parent. She has had no job training, and has a capital murder conviction on her record. And because she was acquitted, but not declared “actually innocent” or pardoned, she is ineligible for compensation for the years she spent in prison.
Texas has the nation’s most generous compensation law for assisting those who are wrongly convicted, but only in cases where the exoneree has been pardoned or declared actually innocent. Some criminal justice advocates argue that the law should be expanded to account for situations like Winfrey’s. Others worry that broadening the law could lead to abuses.
Winfrey was 18 when she was arrested in the death of Burr, who worked at the high school Winfrey and her brother attended. He was found at his home, and evidence presented at the trial indicated he had been stabbed or cut 25 times in the head and neck.
The charges against the Winfreys were largely the result of work by a Fort Bend County sheriff’s deputy’s bloodhounds. The dogs “alerted” when sniffing scent samples from Winfrey, her father and her brother, said the deputy, Keith A. Pikett, indicating that their scent profiles matched evidence found on Burr’s clothing.
When she was arrested — four days after her daughter’s first birthday — Winfrey kissed her screaming baby on the cheek and said she would be right back.
“I really thought I was going to go into the courthouse and tell the judge that I didn’t do this,” she said. “I really thought I was fixin’ to go home that day.”
But Winfrey was taken to jail, where she said she would curl up each night on her metal bunk, clinging to a T-shirt stuffed with clothes, trying to replicate the sensation of holding her baby.
Her father, who went to trial first, was found guilty and sentenced to 75 years in prison. In 2008, Winfrey was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
Court-appointed lawyers represented Winfrey and her father. But by the time her brother went to trial in 2009, the family had scraped together enough money to hire their own lawyers. They found experts who told the jury that the dog-scent lineups were rigged. Richard Winfrey Jr. was acquitted.
Then, in 2010, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued an acquittal for Winfrey’s father, ruling that dog scent evidence alone was insufficient for a conviction.
“I was just was like, well, OK, it’s my turn,” she recalled. “I’m ready to come out now.”
But it would be two and a half years before a similar ruling was made in her case. In that time, her grandmother, who had raised Winfrey, had a stroke and died.
“I used to dream about her almost every night,” Winfrey said, her eyes welling with tears. “Every one of them showed her walking me out of prison like she was right there.”
Back at her home, Winfrey said that bonding with Danielle was her top priority. Making ends meet was a close second. Jobs here are scarce, though, especially for someone without a degree or work experience. Winfrey spent her time in prison doing hard labor, such as digging trenches and turning fields, one of the few jobs available to her as a convicted murderer. Those who have expressed interest in hiring her, Winfrey said, have balked after seeing her criminal record.
Of the 126 Texans whose convictions have been overturned, 90 have received compensation under state law, which was tailored to ensure that those whose convictions are overturned solely on a technicality cannot receive payments.
Anthony Graves was released in 2010 after spending more than a decade on death row, convicted of the 1992 murder of six people. A panel of judges overturned his conviction on the grounds that prosecutors had withheld evidence and relied on perjured testimony. Graves was initially denied compensation, but in 2011, lawmakers passed a law that allowed him to receive $1.45 million in compensation.
“Crafting laws for one set of circumstances isn’t ideal,” said Shannon Edmonds, the director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. “But if the Legislature feels compelled to weigh in on the issue, there may be no other way to do it without crafting something that is subject to abuse.”
Those whose convictions are overturned can file a civil lawsuit, but that is a long, expensive and uncertain process.
Robert Springsteen, who was released in 2009 after his conviction in a 1991 quadruple murder was overturned, was denied compensation twice last year. This month, he filed a federal lawsuit, seeking a declaration of actual innocence so that he can be paid.
Charlie Baird, one of Springsteen’s lawyers, said lawmakers should establish a judicial forum to decide issues of compensation in cases where a person has not been declared actually innocent.
Despite the fact she could lose the land she lives on — her late grandmother spent nearly every cent she had on lawyers, so the family’s property is in danger of foreclosure — Winfrey said that no amount of cash could compensate her for the years she spent in prison. But she wants a declaration of actual innocence to clear her criminal record so she can find a job and get on her feet. And compensation would allow her to pay for college and learn a skill that will help provide for her daughter.
“I want to just do normal stuff,” she said.
Without that declaration, though, Winfrey may decide to sue San Jacinto County for damages. Her brother sued in 2010, seeking damages for the two and a half years he was jailed before his trial. The civil trial will start within the year.
Nonetheless, Winfrey said she was not bitter. All she has endured, she said, has made her a stronger, more composed and spiritual woman.
“God must think I’m the strongest woman in the world,” she said, “because they say he doesn’t put anything on you that you can’t handle.”