Innocence, exoneration, and compensation

We’ve seen all of the stories about inmates being freed from jail in Texas after however many years inside, the result of DNA evidence proving they could not have committed the crime for which they were convicted. But what happens to these men once they are freed? Often, it’s not so good.

Wiley Fountain spent 15 years in a jail cell for a rape he did not commit.

Now the wrongly convicted man is serving another kind of time. He’s free, but he’s homeless.

After squandering nearly $390,000 he received from the state as compensation for his time behind bars, Fountain, 52, spends his days collecting aluminum cans for 35 cents a pound. He spends his nights in a tattered sleeping bag on the asphalt behind a liquor store in a run-down South Dallas neighborhood.

To other exonerees and their lawyers, Fountain is the worst-case example of the need for reforms in how the wrongly convicted are compensated. They are asking the Texas Legislature to increase compensation and to expand its offering of social services to give newly freed men a better shot at a second chance.


[U]nlike parolees, exonerees get almost no help from the state when they first re-enter society.

That could change this year.

State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, filed a bill to increase lump sum compensation from $50,000 to $80,000 for each year of incarceration. The bill also would require the state to pay some of the compensation in annuities, assuring exonerees a lifetime income. The payments would be retroactive to exonerees who already received lump sum payments, including Fountain, and would cease if there was a subsequent felony conviction.

“I don’t imagine any of us locked up more than 20 years have a lot of experience managing personal finances,” said Charles Chatman, who was exonerated in January 2008 after nearly 27 years.

The bill also would provide exonerees the same health insurance given to state employees, a crucial benefit for those who often emerge from prison with severe health problems but no way to get medical coverage.


Exoneration hearings have become common events in Dallas courtrooms in recent years. They’ve also highlighted the lack of social services available to the wrongly convicted.

Such services are commonplace for convicts paroled out of prison. Parolees receive $50 and a bus ticket to anywhere in Texas upon release, and another $50 when they meet up with their parole officers, said Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

There are re-entry centers in major cities that offer employment help, counseling and substance abuse treatment, and there are halfway houses for parolees who need additional supervision.

“We’re not releasing people so they can be homeless,” Clark said. “That doesn’t happen.”

But that’s what routinely happens to exonerees, who are released suddenly and with no place to go.

“It’s really terrible,” [Billy Smith, a Dallas exoneree who served about 20 years of a life sentence on a wrongful conviction of aggravated sexual assault,] said. “People who get out on parole have a better chance of getting started on the right foot than a person who has been exonerated.”

I don’t think it’s too much to ask to give people who were wrongly imprisoned at least as much help once released as the people who get out via parole. The state wrecked their lives, and it has a responsibility to try and make them whole again. Grits has more.

On a related note, as we also know, a lot of these men were convicted on the basis of faulty eyewitness testimony. State Sen. Rodney Ellis is the point man in the battle to improve witness identification procedures, but his efforts have been watered down somewhat.

The exonerations have not convinced all police and prosecutors that sweeping changes are needed. They don’t want lawmakers to mandate policies they believe are unworkable, and they fear losing court evidence because of honest police mistakes or technical violations. But leading law enforcement figures have agreed that eyewitness identifications could be improved.

Those pushing for reform, including defense lawyers and public interest groups, want language stiff enough to compel mandatory identification procedures.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, dropped his original version of the bill that would have ordered police agencies to follow specific lineup methods or face exclusion from trial of identification evidence. Gov. Rick Perry vowed to veto any bill that applied laws on evidence exclusion to eyewitness identifications, said Keith Hampton, legislative director of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers.

The compromise legislation requires police agencies to have written policies on identifications that reflect the latest scientific research. But it specifies that the judicial rule governing what is admissible evidence does not apply to eyewitness identifications.

“I’m more optimistic [about reform legislation becoming law] than I’ve been in my 19 years in the Senate working on these issues,” Ellis said in an interview last week.

Hampton said prosecutors had gutted the aim of the original bill.

“This is a pathetic response,” he said. “It’s a bill that does nothing.”

Prosecutors do not want real reform, Hampton said, and are conducting a “whisper campaign” to prevent Ellis’ bill from being debated on the Senate floor even if, as expected, it clears committee.

[Edwin Colfax, state director of The Justice Project, a national reform group,] agreed that the original bill was softened by opposition. But he said it would establish a framework for future meaningful change.

“It’s not as if the defense lawyers are not coming off better than they were before,” he said.

It’s possible for something to be better than what we had before and still not be very good. In this case, there’s room for it to be a lot better and yet still not really satisfactory. I don’t know if that’s the case here or not, but I’ll take any step forward if we can get it. Perhaps by demonstrating that the sky didn’t fall, further steps can be made later. At least, we can hope for that

Finally, I recently stumbled across this old Baseball Prospectus article, which illustrates how one cannot always rely on one’s memory to know what actually happened. Check it out.

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  1. Pingback: HPOU touts its opposition to eyewitness ID reform – Off the Kuff

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