Monday, 18 May 2009

Texas House OKs wrongful conviction bill

By JEFF CARLTON Associated Press Writer © 2009 The Associated Press
May 14, 2009, 4:04PM

DALLAS — With the help of DNA testing, Texas has freed more wrongly convicted people than any other state. Soon it will compensate them better than any other state, too.
The Texas House has agreed with changes made in the Senate on a bill to boost payments to the wrongly convicted, voting 132-13 for the measure Thursday. It now heads to Gov. Rick Perry.

The governor is expected to sign the legislation, which is named for Tim Cole, a Fort Worth man who died in prison in 1999 while serving time for a rape that DNA testing later showed he did not commit. Last month in Austin, Perry met with Cole's family and was photographed hugging Cole's sobbing mother.

The bill increases lump sum payments from $50,000 to $80,000 for every year of confinement and grants an annuity to provide a lifetime of income. Exonerees will get 120 hours of paid tuition at a career center or public college. Senators removed a provision to provide health insurance coverage for exonerees.

It also provides an additional $25,000 for each year a wrongly convicted person spends on parole or as a registered sex offender. No other state has such a provision, said Barry Scheck, the co-director of The Innocence Project, a New York-based legal center specializing in overturning wrongly convictions.

The bill would give the wrongly convicted in Texas the most generous compensation package in the nation.

"It is a landmark bill," Scheck said. "For a fixed damage award, it's the highest in the country."

Cory Session, Cole's brother, said his brother died "a martyr for innocence." The likely passage of the bill, he said, makes "you walk a little taller and stick out your chest out a little farther."

"Almost 25 years ago, the only thing people knew about Tim Cole's name was he was a convicted rapist," Session said. "Now they know his name stands for a lot more."
The compensation applies only to wrongly convicted people who were actually innocent. Those whose convictions are reversed on technicalities such as insufficient evidence would not be eligible. Also ineligible would be exonerees who are subsequently convicted of felonies.
By accepting state compensation, the wrongly convicted must agree not to sue the state, a factor in attracting support from municipalities such as Dallas, where many of the wrongly convicted are from. There are 39 people in Texas who qualify for compensation, said Kevin Glasheen, a Lubbock attorney who represents some of the exonerees and led the lobbying efforts for the bill. Nineteen are from Dallas.

"The fact that Texas did have such a problem also means these guys had comparatively good claims," Glasheen said. "It is a local government cost-saving measure, ultimately.

"It's a good trade off. It gives guys a quick, fair way of resolving claims without having to go through lengthy court battles."

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