Exoneree, still in prison, demands compensation

by Maurice Chammah

AUSTIN (THE TEXAS TRIBUNE) - A Texas man who was wrongfully convicted of murder and spent more than a decade on death row says he is entitled to compensation under the Texas Wrongful Imprisonment Act. But the state comptroller's office, which oversees the payment of compensation, says because he is not a free man — he is serving four life sentences for sexually assaulting four children — he does not qualify.

On Wednesday at the Supreme Court of Texas, lawyers for Michael Blair, who spent 14 years on death row, and attorneys with the comptroller's office argued over whether Blair is entitled to more than $1 million dollars. Blair was declared innocent of capital murder in 2008 and removed from death row to a general population prison. He is currently serving four life sentences on sexual assault charges, the molestation of four children to which he confessed only after going to prison for the false capital murder conviction.

Blair was exonerated of the 1993 murder of 7-year-old Ashley Estell in Houston. Blair had been previously convicted of a sexual offense against a child, and then-Governor George W. Bush responded to Estell's murder and Blair's conviction by signing a group of laws — dubbed "Ashley's Laws" — that expanded punishment and registration requirements for sex offenders. 

Less than a year after Blair's exoneration, the Texas Legislature passed the Tim Cole Act (HB 1736), offcially the Texas Wrongful Imprisonment Act, which increased compensation for exonerees to $80,000 per year and added lifetime annuity payments and educational benefits. Since 1992, Texas has paid more than $42 million to compensate 74 innocent men and women who collectively spent more than 700 years behind bars. Blair would be entitled to more than $1 million.

Since the bill was passed, several exonerees have undertaken lengthy legal battles with the Comptroller's Office, which oversees the payment of compensation. Last year, three exonerated men fought a decision that rendered them ineligible for full compensation because they had been on parole at the time of their wrongful imprisonment. The judges who reversed that decision noted in their ruling that the men would not have broken parole if they had not been wrongfully convicted.

But Blair's case is different. In 2003, while in prison for murder, he wrote letters of apology to four children he had molested. Collin County officials investigated his claims and charged him with four counts of child molestation. He pleaded guilty and received four life sentences. The Comptroller denied his application for compensation because Blair was "not a free man." 

Blair said that the rulings in favor of defendants who were on parole should apply to him as well, since his crimes would not have been discovered had he not been wrongfully imprisoned. His attorney, Roy Greenwood, said the investigations that led to the child molestation convictions would not have been investigated if he had been in the free world, because it is unclear whether Blair would have written apology letters. "Had he not been on death row," Greenwood told the Justices, "none of this would have happened."

In court Wednesday, Assistant Solicitor General Philip Lionberger told the judges that "the Legislature wants law-abiding citizens to receive this money." He said the bill expressly mentions "re-entry and reintegration," which suggests that lawmakers had not accounted for cases like Blair's. 

"I don't the think the Legislature envisioned this kind of claim being made," Lionberger said. "I don't think it occurred to them to spell this out."

In the state's brief to the court, Lionberger wrote, "Blair cannot hide from the ugly truth that he is a self-confessed, repeat child molester."

Blair's attorneys have said that, "to allow the Comptroller to engage in such 'character' analysis of claimants would defeat the legislative purpose of awarding compensation to atone for the injustice of a person's spending years in prison."

Lionberger told the judges that "Blair is taking literalism too literally," when it comes to the bill, and that if his demands for money are met it could lead to "absurd results," including disciplinary problems in prison over Blair having so much money in his commissary, or trust fund, account. Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark said there is no limit on the amount of money an inmate can have in their commissary account, though they can only spend $100 per month.

Greenwood, who has represented more than 65 death row defendants, was one of the first to pursue DNA testing for cases on appeal. 

If Blair receives the compensation, he will either be able to put the money into his prison account, or give it to his three sisters and brother. "He was attempting to support them when all this happened," Greenwood said, noting that if a wrongfully convicted inmate has died, his family is still entitled to the money. Tim Cole, for whom the act was named, died of an asthma attack in prison in 1999, and his family members have received compensation.


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