For a state perhaps best known as the leader in executing murderers, Texas now has another distinction: It is the most generous in compensating those who were wrongly locked up.
In all, the state has paid more than $65 million to 89 wrongfully convicted people since 1992, according to updated state figures.
And if legislation being discussed at the Texas Capitol becomes law, that tab could soon grow.
“The justice system in Texas had fundamental flaws, and this is the result,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, a longtime champion of the falsely imprisoned. “At this point, I don’t think anyone can seriously doubt that we had a problem — a big problem.”
For a hint of how off-track Texas’ justice system once was, and how expensive those mistakes have become for taxpayers, consider the case of Michael Morton, the exonerated former Austin-area resident who served 25 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. A Williamson County court convicted him in 1987 of killing his wife Christine.
Morton, who was 57 when he was freed from prison in 2011, so far has received $1.96 million for his mistaken imprisonment, state records show.
Under a law signed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2009, some exonerees will receive $80,000 each year for the rest of their lives and are eligible for the same health insurance as employees of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, where the ex-prisoners did their time.
Twenty-six other states and the District of Columbia also provide compensation to exonerees — but they pay less, according to statistics compiled by the Innocence Project, a privately funded national initiative that works on behalf of the wrongfully convicted. Currently, Ellis, D-Houston, serves as its board chairman.
Since the first wrongful conviction through DNA was logged in 1989, 65 percent of exonerees nationally have received some form of compensation, according to the Innocence Project.
According to a recent Bloomberg Businessweek report, Vermont provides a one-time payment of $30,000 to $60,000 for each year wrongfully convicted felons were locked up. Wisconsin pays $25,000, regardless of how long a person was incarcerated.
Texas pays exonerees a lump sum based on the years they spent behind bars, plus an $80,000 annuity. The state also pays for 120 hours of college credit and $10,000 for job training.
Twelve former convicts were added to the rolls in Texas last year, state records show, and at least 14 additional cases are under investigation.
In coming weeks, legislators are expected to discuss bills that proponents say would protect against future wrongful convictions, by requiring police to video-record interrogations; provide additional funding to Texas law schools to investigate additional wrongful-conviction cases; and allow prisoners to seek new scientific testing on evidence in their case years after they were convicted, if that science wasn’t available when they were sent to prison.
A bill filed by state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, would extend health insurance benefits to the exonerees’ families. Ellis said he is considering a similar measure in the Senate, “since families have suffered, and continue to suffer, as well.”
In addition, legislation is being considered to ensure that all evidence in criminal trials is fully disclosed, and not hidden by prosecutors or police, and to make police and prosecutors criminally liable for doing so. Those changes are being looked at because of the Morton case; his prosecutor has been accused of hiding evidence favorable to Morton’s defense, and the allegations were the subject of a rare court of inquiry last week.
For their part, prosecutors and police have pushed back against proposals that might target them for jail time or fines for doing their jobs. County officials have opposed suggestions that they should pay part of the tab for conviction mistakes. And some lawmakers are questioning whether Texas’ compensation system is too generous, at a time when schools, law enforcement and health programs need billions more in funding.
“It seems like the right thing to do,” said state Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, who last week filed filed the new-science bill. “I’m committed to correcting the problems we know have been a problem in our system in the past. We have to make the system accountable.”
For Texas, whose tough-on-crime image is part of the Lone Star legend, legislative concern over wrongful convictions started in 2001, when state law was changed to streamline post-conviction DNA testing on claims of innocence and allow the wrongfully convicted to collect $25,000 for each year they had mistakenly served behind bars.
Since 1965, $25,000 had been the most they could get.
Exoneration payments shot up, more than tripling between 2005 and 2006.
Then, in 2009, the Tim Cole Act — named for a Lubbock man who was wrongfully convicted of a rape and died in prison while trying to prove his innocence — raised the compensation. Gov. Rick Perry, who signed the measure into law, at the time called the change “a significant step for justice” in a state that had spent the past 20 years building prisons, enacting tougher criminal laws and increasing sentences for felons.
The compensation payments peaked at $21.8 million in 2010. Last year, they stood at nearly $19.3 million, according to state payment records provided by the Comptroller of Public Accounts.
Among other changes being discussed by legislative leaders are bills — already filed or soon to be — that could ease restrictions on some ex-convicts in obtaining certain state professional licenses, so they can find work once they get out.
Jeremy Warren, a spokesman for Ellis’ legislative office, said that is one of the biggest challenges facing exonerees — successfully integrating back into society.
“It’s a significant problem,” he said. “The compensation is designed only to cover the time they spent in prison, but it’s not adequate for them to rebuild a satisfactory life.
“People can get upset about the level of compensation, but imagine spending years and years in prison for a crime they did not commit. If it was you, how much would be enough?”
EXONERATIONS: At a glance
Wrongful convictions in the United States
Post-conviction DNA exonerations: 302, including 235 since 2000
First DNA exoneration: 1989
Number of exonerations from death rows: 18. 16 others were charged with capital crimes, but weren’t sentenced to death
Number of true suspects identified after an exoneration: 146
Average years in prison served by exonerees: 13.6
Average age of exonerees at the time of their wrongful convictions: 27
Races of the 302 exonerees
Unknown race: 5
Wrongful convictions in Texas
DNA exonerations: 48
Average number of years Incarcerated: 13.5
DNA exonerations before 2001: 7
DNA exonerations since 2001: 41
Leading cause of wrongful convictions: False eyewitness identification
DNA Exonerations by County
El Paso: 1
Exoneration compensation in Texas by year
Source: Innocence Project, Innocence Project of Texas, Office of State Sen. Rodney Ellis, Texas State Comptroller of Public Accounts