Talk about adding insult to injury. In 1982, Steven Phillips was wrongly convicted of a series of rapes and began serving a 180-year sentence. In 2007, after serving 25 years, 6 months and 18 days behind bars, DNA evidence proved he was not the perpetrator of the rapes or sexual assaults, and he was formally exonerated.
In the spring of 2009, Texas lawmakers passed a bill called the Timothy Cole Act (after another exonerated inmate). After the law passed, Phillips fired his lawyer and filed the compensation papers with the state himself. Under the terms of this law, Phillips is expected to receive up to $6 million in compensation from the state for time spent behind bars, plus compensation for legal expenses. According to the comptroller’s office, Phillips received $2,069,166.67 in a lump-sum settlement; he also collects a monthly annuity from the state worth $11,601.90 spread out over the rest of his life.
You would think this would be the “happy ending” for all of Phillips’ troubles, but think again. It’s like an old episode of The Twilight Zone in which the takeaway is “Be Careful Of What You Wish For.” It’s as if Phillips has now been transformed into an ATM, and everybody with a half-assed claim wants a piece of this “windfall.” But it’s no windfall; Phillips “earned” it in the hardest way possible.
His fired lawyer wants more than the state-paid legal expenses. He wants a piece of the settlement itself—as much as 25% of the nest egg. And a former wife, Traci Tucker—who dropped him ten years into his sentence—is seeking back child support. In 1992, at the time of the divorce, Tucker was awarded $114,000 in lost wages the judge determined Phillips would have earned as a roofing contractor, his job at the time of his arrest. However, that amount is alleged by Tucker to be insufficient in the light of the Cole Act award.
Two years after passage of the Cole Act, Tucker sued Phillips for a portion of the state’s compensation, insisting she had a right to the lost wages—which even the act’s authors said were not intended to be part of the law. “He was a victim of a wrongful justice system,” Tucker said last year, “and his family was also.” Because Phillips was unable to make child support payments due to his wrongful imprisonment, back child support is supposed to be paid by the state of Texas as part of Phillips’ wrongful conviction compensation.
In the summer of 2012, Judge Lori Chrisman Hockett handed down an unprecedented ruling: Traci Tucker, said the state district judge, was entitled to a fraction of the small fortune her ex-husband was awarded. On the basis of that decision, Phillips has been paying Tucker $5,500 a month from the settlement the state paid him earlier for his wrongful incarceration.
However, on Monday the Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas reversed that decision. Justice David Evans ruled that the money is Phillips’ alone and that is has nothing to do with lost wages. “Phillips argues his compensation award under section 103.052(a) of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code (entitled Lump-Sum Compensation) was calculated by multiplying the number of years he was wrongfully imprisoned by $80,000 and did not include any amount for lost wages during the period of his wrongful incarceration. We agree. … Under the Act, no portion of the monetary compensation Phillips received through its administrative procedure is characterized as lost wages. Accordingly, the trial court erred in concluding otherwise.”
At the same time, the state comptroller claims that Phillips owes Tucker only $18,593 and refuses to pay the total amount of $334,000 that District Judge Gloria Saldana said is owed to Tucker.
The Texas Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday as to whether the state comptroller can limit the amount of funds provided through the Cole Act, which entitles wrongfully-convicted Texans to compensation of around $80,000 per year of incarceration (regardless of their compensation level at the time of the crime), plus an annuity valued at $80,000 per year based on the number of years wrongfully imprisoned.
If the court rules that the comptroller can limit the funds and the state pays less than the full amount of child support owed, Phillips may be held responsible for the difference. Since a case like this has never come before the state supreme court, the decision will serve as a precedent for similar cases in the future.
And all the while, Phillips is involved in this endless process of legal wrangling which he surely must think is unjust, unreasonable, illogical, and holding him back from just getting on with his life.
I’m sure I’m guilty of over-simplifying the story and leaving out most of the legal intricacies and details. I’ve left out the main reason that the Dallas police focused on Phillips as a suspect rather than a person of interest: in 1982 he was a peeping Tom, which is certainly unsavory. But he is 55 years old now and says this youthful activity is a thing of the past. In any event, he is guilty of having only looked, but not touched. Hasn’t he been hassled and punished enough?
Apparently anyplace but Texas. In a state better known for the number of prisoners it executes, Texas also leads the nation in compensation to the wrongfully convicted—paying more than $65 million to 89 men between 1992 and 2013. Yet, as this case illustrates, even compensation to the wrongfully convicted don’t come easy in Texas.
(If you need to be reminded of the source of this essay’s title, go here.)
One article I read about this case described Phillips as “prison-hardened”—and he certainly is that. But is it any wonder? Every direction he turns, there is someone there, trying to get a piece of what he has.
I say it’s high time to give the man a break. Let him breathe easy and free. It’s time to inject some sanity into his situation.
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PS: A similar case in Illinois settled in the exoneree’s favor. Read about it here.