State the most generous in compensating exonerees; legislators ponder changes to safeguard against future false convictions.
By Mike Ward
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.
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