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Written by Liz Goodwin
"A courtroom technicality has cost a wrongly convicted Texas man the compensation that would otherwise be due him for the 18 years he'd served in Texas prison--14 of which he spent on Death Row.
Anthony Graves would have received $1.4 million in compensation if only the words "actual innocence" had been included in the judge's order that secured Graves's release from prison. The Comptroller's office decided the omission means Graves gets zero dollars, writes Harvey Rice at the Houston Chronicle, even though the prosecutor, judge, and defense all agreed at trial he is innocent.
So how did this happen? Cory Session, a Texas Innocence Project policy director and one of the architects of the 2009 Tim Cole compensation law for exonerated prisoners, tells The Lookout that the Brenham prosecutor's office decided to dismiss the murder charges they originally filed against Graves, instead of retrying him all over again and finding him innocent. The compensation law provides $80,000 per year in prison only to claimants explicitly found innocent in a retrial or who are granted a pardon. Neither status now applies to Graves.
Session says he has no idea why the Brenham prosectors neglected to explicitly say in the court order that Graves was innocent. By simply dropping the charges, prosecutors could always retry Graves for the same crime if new evidence surfaced. Double Jeapordy rules would not apply, because the original charges against him have effectively disappeared.
Graves's lawyers are now pointing fingers at Burleson County District Attorney William Parham, who "declined to sign an order asking District Judge Reva Towslee Corbett to amend Graves' order of release to include the words 'actual innocence,'" according to the Brenham Banner Press. Parham said last month he also believes Graves is innocent, but that "actual innocence" carries no strict legal meaning; he also said he made no recommendations on the compensation case. Parham's office informed The Lookout he was not available for comment on the Graves case.
Session says Graves could now sue under federal civil rights law on the grounds that he suffered cruel and unusual punishment. Judge Corbett could also rescind the original order and add the words "actual innocence." If Graves sues the state of Texas in civil court, tort laws there limit any compensation to $200,000.
Meanwhile, Texas GOP Gov. Rick Perry won't be able to rectify the other judicial technicality that's blocked his qualification from the state compensation fund: Graves is not eligible for a pardon because he is no longer accused or convicted of any crime.
The Tim Cole Act is named after Session's brother, who was exonerated of a rape conviction after he died in prison. Session says he plans to lobby to amend the law and close the loophole Graves slipped through.
"It's obvious to us that under the spirit of the state legislation passed in 2009, Graves deserves compensation," The Houston Chronicle editorialized. "No one disputes the fact that the man is actually innocent. And the $1.4 million payment that he's due according to the state's formula hardly makes up for the loss of freedom for most of his adult life. The state has paid more than $30 million to 67 wrongfully imprisoned Texans. Graves should be the 68th."
"I need some help," Graves told The Chronicle in a video before the decision. "It doesn't feel good being a 45-year-old man and having to depend on your family just to make sure you eat. It's kind of embarrassing. But right now, this is my life."
For more background, Pamela Colloff at Texas Monthly has a fascinating chronicle of the crime, reconstructing how Graves was falsely accused."
•Seventeen people had been sentenced to death before DNA proved their innocence and led to their release.
•The average sentence served by DNA exonerees has been 13 years.
•About 70 percent of those exonerated by DNA testing are members of minority groups.
•In almost 40 percent of DNA exoneration cases, the actual perpetrator has been identified by DNA testing.
•Exonerations have been won in 34 states and Washington, D.C.