The spring of 1982 seemed full of promise for Steven and Traci Phillips, who had just started a roofing business in Dallas and were expecting their first child.
“He’s extremely ambitious and a very hard worker, a pretty brilliant guy,” she said. “And I was right there by his side the whole time.”
But their family life ended that year, when Steven Phillips was named a suspect in a string of sex crimes. In two trials in 1982 and 1983, he was convicted based largely on eyewitness identifications, despite his wife’s vehement protestations from the witness stand that he could not have committed the crimes.
He pleaded guilty to additional charges to prevent a third trial and a likely life sentence. She said she spent the next decade visiting him in prison, raising their son, sending money for items her husband needed, and hoping to find a way to get him out. Eventually, though, the couple grew apart and divorced in 1992.
Phillips spent 24 years in prison before DNA tests connected another man to the rapes and prompted the courts to declare Phillips innocent. In 2009, the state awarded him lump sum payments totaling more than $2 million, and a monthly annuity of more than $11,000. In total, his compensation package for the time he spent in prison is worth nearly $6 million, not including health care and education benefits he is also eligible to receive.
His ex-wife, now Traci Tucker, is arguing that she is entitled to a portion of that money. The two are locked in a legal battle that her lawyers say is the first of its kind in the nation. Tucker sued Phillips, and last year a Dallas County state district judge awarded her about $150,000.
“He was a victim of a wrongful justice system, and his family was also,” Tucker said.
Phillips is appealing the decision, and both sides expect the case to make its way to the Texas Supreme Court, the state’s highest civil court, for a decision on whether former spouses of exonerees are entitled to compensation. It is a question that one legislator who helped write the compensation law said lawmakers had not considered.
“This is an example of the law of unintended consequences,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas. “We did not think about entitlement by spouses who had become divorced from these innocent men while they were in prison.”
Phillips said his ex-wife’s lawsuit was among a handful of legal fights he has faced since he was released.
“When the cheese is on the table, the rats come out,” he said, adding that he did not have ill feelings toward Tucker. Phillips sued a lawyer who billed him more than $1 million for lobbying lawmakers to increase the compensation for exonerees. And another ex-wife is seeking to recover child support that went unpaid during his years in prison.
He said that he has spent at least $300,000 on lawyers since he was freed and that despite the compensation, he has struggled to keep his business afloat.
“The legal bills just tore me up,” Phillips said.
In his appeal, Phillips argued that the compensation was not for lost wages, as Tucker contended. The compensation, his lawyers wrote in the appeal, is a mandatory response required under the law based on the years he was imprisoned, not on the amount of money he might have earned if he had been free to work.
And, he argued, because he was ineligible for compensation until well after the divorce, the money he received should not be subject to division under state community property laws.
Phillips said that he appreciated Tucker’s support during his trials, but contended that she had rarely visited him in prison. “To make a claim on those years I spent in prison,” he said, “is really freaking outrageous.”
Matt Kita, a lawyer for Tucker, said the law should account for the damage done to spouses of the wrongfully convicted, who lose companionship and income and face the stigma of having an incarcerated mate.
“She could have been an awesome spouse, or she could have been a terrible spouse, but the law hosed her,” Kita said.
Tucker said she could not calculate how much money she and her family had spent on lawyers, travel and necessities from the prison commissary during the decade she was married to Phillips.
“To me, marriage was for life, and I was going to be with him forever, and we were going to get through this — or so I thought,” she said.
The divorce, she said, had been requested by Phillips, who grew distant and wanted her to move on.
An expert testified in court that Tucker’s half of the earnings Phillips could have made during the time they were married was about $114,000. The court also granted Tucker legal fees, bringing the total award to about $153,000, 2.6 percent of Phillips’ compensation.
Tucker said she hoped the case would prompt legislators to consider the havoc that wrongful convictions wreak on families.
“It’s not all about the money,” she said. “There’s just no recognition whatsoever. Just ‘sorry folks, sorry we ruined your life and took your provider and your best friend.’ Nothing.”