Skip to content
Subscriber Only

Texas-Size Reparations for the Wrongfully Convicted

Texas leads the U.S. in executions—and cash for exonerated prisoners
His brother died in prison; now Cory Session is an activist
His brother died in prison; now Cory Session is an activistPhotograph by Bryan Schutmaat for Bloomberg Businessweek

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.