In 2006, after serving 19 years and 11 months in a Texas prison for a rape he didn’t commit, Billy Smith was exonerated of all charges and set free. He was 54. Despite clearing his name, he’s never been able to find a job. “Who wants to hire someone who’s 61 years old and who’s an ex-convict?” Smith says. “Even though I’m exonerated, people don’t consider that because I was in prison for 20 years.”
Texas is well known for its prodigious use of the death penalty—on Halloween, it carried out its 250th execution under Republican Governor Rick Perry’s 12-year tenure. It’s also the most generous state in the nation when it comes to showing remorse for locking up the wrong man. Under a law Perry signed in 2009, Texas will pay Smith about $80,000 a year for the rest of his life. He’s also eligible for the same health-care insurance as employees of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Money can’t replace his lost years, Smith says, but he’s now married and owns a home. The activists who persuaded Perry to support the cash settlements are lobbying Texas lawmakers to expand the law to include health coverage for ex-prisoners’ families.
Twenty-seven states and Washington, D.C., provide some form of compensation to the wrongfully convicted. Vermont gives them a one-time payment of between $30,000 and $60,000 for each year they were locked up. Wisconsin pays $25,000 total, regardless of how long a person was incarcerated. So far Texas has paid 88 former prisoners—including two released from death row—a total of nearly $60 million, according to R.J. DeSilva, spokesman for the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. A dozen former inmates were added to the rolls in 2012.
Perry endorsed the reparations under pressure from falsely convicted men and their families. In 1986, Timothy Cole, an Army veteran, was found guilty of raping a classmate at Texas Tech University. He died of a heart attack in prison in 1999. On Mother’s Day nine years later, Cole’s mother, Ruby Cole Session, received a letter from the real rapist, who confessed. As Cole Session and her family lobbied the governor to clear Timothy Cole’s name, several other men who’d been wrongfully convicted in Dallas, including Smith, were suing the city for tens of millions of dollars in damages.
They agreed to drop their lawsuits if the legislature increased the small payments that Texas then provided exonerated prisoners. At one meeting, Cole Session grabbed the governor’s hand and said, “I need this bill passed for these gentlemen,” recalls her son, Cory Session, who was there. Session says Perry told his mother, “If it gets to my desk, I’ll sign it.” (A Perry spokesman could not confirm the anecdote.) Perry called the Tim Cole Act a “significant step for justice,” and the men withdrew their lawsuits.
The law provides exonerees with a lump sum payment based on how many years they spent behind bars, plus the $80,000 annuity. The state also agreed to pay for 120 hours of college credit and $10,000 for job training. Cory Session, who’s now policy director of the Innocence Project of Texas, which helps identify and free falsely convicted prisoners, says even the application process was made simple: Freed prisoners submit a few documents, and about six to eight weeks later the first check arrives. “In most states,” he says, “you need a lawyer.”
The Innocence Project, which is funded by private donations and is currently reviewing 14 more claims of false conviction, has become a savvy lobbying force in Austin, in part because Texas courts have locked up so many innocent people and their stories are hard for politicians to ignore. (Texas ranks No. 3 nationally in wrongful convictions over the last 24 years, behind Illinois and New York, according to a 2012 study by the University of Michigan and Northwestern University law schools.) On Jan. 10, Session led a group of exonerated men to the Capitol in Austin, where they were greeted warmly. Afterward, they pressed a list of new demands in meetings with lawmakers. The legislature is now considering at least six of their proposals, including a change to the state’s habeas corpus rules that would allow challenges to convictions based on shoddy science; a requirement that police record all interrogations of people charged with serious felonies; and funding to help the state’s four public law schools investigate claims of false convictions.
The key to winning over legislators, Session says, is letting the innocent men who lost years in prison do the talking. “I was able to get all the attention just on them.”