From the Dallas Morning News:
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 Steven Phillips earned the hardest way imaginable — by spending 9,129 days behind bars for crimes he did not commit.
On Monday, the Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas reversed that decision.
For now, at least, Tucker will receive nothing from her ex, whose child she was carrying when Phillips was arrested by Dallas police in 1982 in connection withdozens of rapes that had taken place across the city that year. Tucker, who divorced Phillips in 1992, was awarded $114,000 in lost wages the judge determined he would have earned as a roofing contractor, his job at the time of his arrest.
Under the Tim Cole Act, so named for another wrongfully imprisoned Texas inmate, Phillips is expected to receive up to $6 million in compensation from the state for time spent behind bars. According to the comptroller’s office Phillips received $2,069,166.67 up front; he also collects a monthly annuity from the state worth $11,601.90 spread out over the rest of his life.
Phillips was exonerated of the sexual assaults that put him behind bars in 2008, when DNA testing cleared his name. Two years later 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 Tim Cole Act. “He was a victim of a wrongful justice system,” Tucker said last year, “and his family was also.”
Justice David Evans ruled Monday that money is Phillips’ alone and that is has nothing to do with lost wages, echoing comments made by Phillips’ attorney in August 2012.
“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,” says the ruling below. “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.”
Says the ruling, which notes that Tucker did receive child support, “The compensation scheme under the Act is essentially liquidated damages for ‘the wrong done in the State’s name’ based on time served” and nothing more.
“Nowhere in the Act does the Legislature provide compensation for the spouse of an exoneree,” says Evans. “Allowing spouses and former spouses of the wrongfully convicted to sue the exoneree for a portion of their statutory compensation might well require the exoneree to expend a considerable portion of his recovery on extended legal proceedings to defend his award. Moreover, in the case of a high wage earning exoneree, the entire amount of the lump-sum compensation award could be subject to division as lost wages without regard to any other harm personally suffered by the exoneree while wrongfully imprisoned.”
That is more or less exactly what state Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas, one of the Tim Cole Act’s authors, told the Texas Tribune last year: “We did not think about entitlement by spouses who had become divorced from these innocent men while they were in prison.”
Phillips’ Fort Worth-based attorney Randy Turner says he and his client are “thrilled” with the appeals court’s decision.
“That was the right ruling, of course,” he says. “If the court had ruled for the ex-wife, it would have opened the floodgates for the ex-spouses of all exonerees. Every exoneree’s first stop after walking out of the prison gates would be to an attorney’s office to prepare for the inevitable lawsuits. … I don’t want to minimize how difficult it was for her while he was in prison. But it was more difficult for him.”
Tucker’s attorney, Jerry Patchen of Houston, has said all along he intends to take this to the Supreme Court of Texas if his client lost the appeal. A message has been left for Patchen, but Turner says that will indeed be the next step.
“We’ve known all along this is headed for the Supreme Court,” he says. “I have doubts as to whether the court will hear their appeal, but I have no doubt the other side will try.”
We will update if and when Patchen calls back. Until then the ruling follows.
View the Court’s opinion here.