Wednesday, March 23, 2011

TX: Court boosts compensation for wrongly convicted man

Technicality rejected

The Texas Supreme Court ruled today that the state owed a wrongly convicted man an extra $66,000 in compensation for his imprisonment on top of $1.527 million already paid.

Billy James Smith spent more than 19 years in prison after being wrongly convicted of sexually assaulting a woman in his apartment complex at knifepoint. His case was based wholly on witness identification. DNA testing led to his release in 2006.

In 2009, the Texas Legislature passed the Tim Cole Act, named after a Fort Worth man who was convicted of rape and died in prison before DNA evidence cleared him. The bill increased the lump sum compensation for a wrongly imprisoned person to $80,000 per year in prison, up from $50,000.

When Smith applied for compensation under the act, the State Comptroller decided he was not eligible for compensation for the first ten months of his wrongful imprisonment because that time was due to violation of his parole from an earlier car theft and armed robbery. Last year, Smith's lawyer appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, arguing that Smith deserved to be compensated for those ten months because the parole violation stemmed from the wrongful conviction.

The Justices appeared to see some merit in both sides of the argument. "Neither the Comptroller's nor Smith's reading of the statute is unreasonable or implausible," Justice David Medina wrote for the court

The Court ultimately ruled against the Comptroller's interpretation of the law. A key issue was the famed Tulia drug busts that led to the state throwing out convictions on several people. In those cases, the state ultimately compensated people whose probation had been revoked due to the bad convictions.

The Comptroller's office argued that Smith's parole issue is not the same as probation but the Justices disagreed. "...It seems unlikely that the Legislature intended to compensate wrongfully-imprisoned probationers, and not parolees, given the similarity in their circumstances," Medina wrote.

Since his release, Smith has been an advocate for reforming the state's justice system to avoid further wrongful convictions. "No amount of money can give me back what I lost. That is something I'll never get back -- something has been taken from my insides," Smith told the Star-Telegram in 2007. "There is nothing I can do to them that can give me back the freedom I lost."

After being exonerated, Smith filed a lawsuit alleging that a Dallas County prosecutor and the Dallas Police Department violated his civil rights when he was wrongfully convicted. He was one of several exonerees who dropped a lawsuit related to his wrongful conviction in 2009 in expectation that the Legislature would pass a bill to increase their compensation.

Smith has already received $1.527 million in compensation for his wrongful conviction, according to court documents. With the state now owing him approximately $66,000 more, his total compensation will be $1.593 million.

Original report here

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