The Texas Supreme Court ruling in In RE: Billy James Smith is in Adobe .pdf format. The Court ruled Friday.
"Court orders state to pay exonerated inmates $2.7 million," is the title of the Austin American-Statesman coverage by Chuck Lindell.
The Texas Supreme Court on Friday ordered the state to pay $2.7 million to three wrongly convicted Texans who spent, in total, 52 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
Wrongly convicted Texans may collect $80,000 for every year in prison, but Comptroller Susan Combs' office ruled that the three men were ineligible for full compensation because they had been on parole for prior crimes when they were imprisoned.
But a unanimous Supreme Court said Combs' office was too restrictive in applying the law, enacted in 1965 and updated in 2009 to compensate exonerated convicts for the emotional, physical and economic toll of prison.
Being on parole did not disqualify the men from full compensation, the opinion by Justice David Medina said.
Two other exonerated men joined (Ronald) Taylor in turning to the Supreme Court for help — 20-year prisoner Billy James Smith, whose compensation was cut by almost $67,000, and 18-year inmate Gregory Wallis, who lost almost $145,000.
All three men were imprisoned on rape-related charges and exonerated after DNA testing.
In addition to the withheld payments, the three inmates will receive a matching annuity that earns 5 percent annual interest and pays out monthly for as long as they live — totaling almost $2.7 million in added compensation.
Friday's court decision clarified a state law that bars wrongly convicted prisoners from collecting money if they also served a concurrent sentence for another crime. The policy is meant to save Texas from paying for prison time that would have been served anyway.
Lawyers for Combs argued that serving a sentence on parole is no different, legally, from serving that sentence in prison. Therefore, they said, until the earlier sentences were discharged, the three inmates served concurrent terms that limited their state compensation.
For Smith, the overlap was a mere 10 months. Taylor's earlier sentence, however, was not discharged until three months before he was released on the mistaken conviction — wiping out 14 years of compensation.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court said the comptroller's reading of the law was not "unreasonable or implausible."
But, the court noted, the law was intended to limit compensation for concurrently served jail time. The exonerated men, however, had been free on parole and would not have gone to prison except for their wrongful convictions, the court ruled.
Erin Mulvaney writes, "Texas owes wrongly convicted man $66,000 despite technicalities, court says," for the Dallas Morning News.
The Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday that the state must pay more money to a wrongfully convicted man who was denied part of his compensation because of a technicality.
Billy James Smith of Fort Worth spent 19 years in prison on an aggravated sexual assault conviction in Dallas County. A 2006 DNA test proved he did not commit the crime.
Smith received about $1.5 million from the state, but Comptroller Susan Combs, who handles compensation requests, denied him $66,000 because the first 10 months of his sentence overlapped with a parole violation from a robbery conviction from 1970.
Smith argued to the Supreme Court that the parole violation was only a result of the wrongful arrest and conviction, so he should be paid the full amount.
Combs contended that the state’s wrongful conviction law clearly states that a person “is not entitled to compensation … for any part of a sentence in prison during which the person was also serving a concurrent sentence.”
But Smith’s lawyers said the intent of the law was to remedy wrongful convictions, and the court ultimately agreed.
“When statutory language is susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation, we look beyond its language for clues to the Legislature’s intended meaning,” wrote Justice David Medina in the court’s unanimous opinion on the case.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports, "Court boosts compensation for wrongly convicted man," by Aman Batheja.
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."