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Wrongful convictions have cost Texans more than $93 million

Michael Morton sits beside his mother, Patricia Morton, during an emotional press conference after a judge today agreed to release him on personal bond after he spent nearly 25 years in prison for the murder of his wife. Recently tested DNA indicates another man committed the 1986 killing.Photo by Callie Richmond

by Johnathan Silver and Lindsay Carbonell, The Texas Tribune

Texas has paid 101 men and women who were wrongfully sent to prison $93.6 million over the past 25 years, according to data from the state comptroller's office. The tab stands to grow as those wrongfully imprisoned individuals age and more people join the list.

Generally, someone whose conviction is thrown outand is declared by a judge, prosecutor or appellate court to be"actually innocent" is eligible for a lump sum payment equal to $80,000 for each year they spentbehind bars. In addition, they become eligible for monthlyannuity payments for the rest of their lives, unless they are later convicted of a felony.

Texas' compensation program is among the most generous in the nation, though several states have no such laws or cap the total amount an exoneree can be paid, according to the Innocence Project.

The compensation program is based on the Tim Cole Act, legislation enacted in 2009 and named after a former Texas Tech University student wrongfully convicted of aggravated sexual assault in 1985. Before then, the state had aless generouspayment structure.

To calculate monthly annuity payments, Social Security Administration actuaries estimatethe life expectancy of exonerees, according to the comptroller's office.They receive a monthly payment based on the lump sum they received — plus 5 percent compounded interest — divided by time they're expected to live.Monthly payments stop if an exoneree is convicted of a felony or dies.

As of May 31, Texas had paid exonerees $69.1 million in lump sums and $24.5 million in monthly annuity payments since 1991. Rickey Dale Wyatt, who spent more than 30 years in prison for a Dallas County aggravated rape he did not commit,receivedthe highest paid lump sum at $2.4 million.

Together, these former inmates spent 1,000 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit. More than half of the exonerees served six years or longer in prison. Sixty-eight exonerees were paid lump sums of less than $1 million, while the comptroller's office cut million-dollar or more checksin 33 cases.

High-profile exonerees such as Anthony Graves, who was convicted of capital murder and served 18 years, and Michael Morton, who served 24 years in prison for the murder of his wife, received $1.4 million and nearly $2 million, respectively. Graves had to sue the state for compensation, and Morton's story led to a change in law that mandates prosecutors keep records of and share evidence with defendants.

Several current and former Texas prisoners have fought to clear their names and could one day make the expensive and exclusive list of exonerees.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 2014 overturned Alfred Dewayne Brown's 2005 murder conviction after telephone records that could have supported his alibi were not shared with the defense. The Harris County district attorney pursued another trial but reviewed the evidence, "came up short" and dropped the case.

But Brown has not been granted compensation because he has not been declared "actually innocent" by a court or the prosecutor's office. His attorney is pressuring the comptroller's office to compensate Brown.

In early June, a Smith County court set aside Kerry Max Cook's conviction. He was accused in 1977 of raping, murdering and mutilating neighbor and acquaintance Linda Jo Edwards and spent 20 years on death row. His next fight is to be declared actually innocent. He points to DNA evidence that rules him out as the culprit.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at texastribune.org/wrongful-convictions.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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