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Alfred Dewayne Brown will finally be compensated up to nearly $2 million for his wrongful imprisonment, after spending 12 years behind bars and nearly a decade on Texas' death row for a crime the courts have since determined he didn't commit. On Friday, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the state was wrong to deny him payment.
The ruling follows a lengthy fight over Brown’s innocence, a determination made by prosecutors and the trial court that Houston police and top state officials have rejected.
The top Texas court did not wade into the argument over Brown's innocence, but instead rejected the premise that the state's top accountant can make final decisions over who does and doesn't deserve wrongful imprisonment payment.
"You have the comptroller acting like an appellate judge," Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman said at a hearing in October. Guzman wrote Friday's ruling.
The court's ruling stated that Brown's application for compensation "checked all the statutory boxes, and as a purely ministerial matter, he is eligible for compensation."
In 2015, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals tossed out Brown’s conviction and death sentence in the 2003 murder of a Houston police officer. Phone records found in the prosecution’s possession, but not shared with the defense at trial, supported Brown’s alibi that he was at his girlfriend’s house during the crime.
At first, Brown was freed from prison but not eligible for a state payout for his wrongful imprisonment. A state law allows those who are wrongfully imprisoned to get compensation for the years they were behind bars, but Brown didn’t qualify for the payment because he was not declared “actually innocent” in the courts.
In 2019, that changed. Harris County prosecutors further reviewed the case, and the court signed off on his innocence claim, seemingly paving the way for Brown to receive $80,000 for each year he was wrongfully in prison, plus an equal amount paid out in smaller payments over the course of his life. For Brown, this totals nearly $1 million as a lump sum, plus another nearly $1 million paid throughout his life.
But the Texas comptroller, after receiving advice from the Texas attorney general, denied Brown’s claim for the money. On Friday afternoon, a spokesperson for the comptroller said the office would comply with the court's order and "begin the process of compensating Mr. Brown." The Texas attorney general's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Houston police union officials have long rejected the ruling of Brown’s innocence, and the chief of police said he was concerned with the innocence ruling. Last June, Attorney General Ken Paxton took the rare step of intervening in the monetary discussion by asking the comptroller to deny Brown’s compensation claim. In an email obtained by The Texas Tribune, Paxton told Comptroller Glenn Hegar he had “serious concern” with the application and said there was still credible evidence Brown killed Houston police officer Charles Clark.
He also said to the comptroller the trial court may not have had jurisdiction to declare Brown innocent after it had already dismissed the case years earlier.
Days later, Hegar’s office denied Brown’s application for wrongful imprisonment compensation, echoing Paxton’s argument that it was not clear that the Harris County court had the jurisdiction to issue the innocence ruling.
But Brown’s attorneys argued to the Texas Supreme Court, and the justices agreed, that the comptroller exceeded his authority by making such judicial determinations. His job, the Texas high court ruled, is to verify the compensation application documents are sound and assess the payout amount.
“The Comptroller’s purely ministerial duty to determine eligibility does not include looking behind the verified documents to review the district court’s factual and legal conclusions de novo,” Guzman wrote in the court’s ruling Friday. “We direct the Comptroller to … compensate Brown for the time he was wrongfully imprisoned.”
Neal Manne, one of Brown's attorneys, said Friday that his client was overwhelmed with the court's ruling, hoping it will be the final chapter in his tragic story.
"What was important to him was having validation that he really was innocent and that what happened to him was really unjust," Manne said. "He’s been out of prison for five and a half years, and now finally he’s got confirmation from the highest court in the state that he’s entitled to this last small measure of justice."
Disclosure: The Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.