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Wrongfully Convicted Exoneree Gets $1.45 Million Award After Student Journalists Reinvestigate His Case

One Texan exoneree was awarded money for a wrongful conviction, but what's next for the state with highest wrongful death penalty convictions?
Thanks to a bill authored by Texas State Representative Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, and sponsored by Senator Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, Texas exoneree Anthony Graves willreceive $1.45million from the state in compensation for the 18 years he was wrongly imprisoned on death row for crimes he did not commit.

In a press release from June 30, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs announced that her office would pay Graves the amount owed to him under state law in the form of monthly annuity checks.

Graves found out about the bill’s passage and governor’s signature after asking a co-worker to look over the signed bills that Texas Governor Rick Perry announced over the weekend. Perry signed House Bill 417 on June 17, and it became law the following Monday . Under the new statute, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is required to help the state’s exonerees by providing them information on how to initiate the compensation process. The new law also amends 2009’s Tim Cole Act, which granted exonerees college tuition and as much as $80,000 per year served.

HB 417 now allows wrongly convicted men and women to be eligible for health care through the TDCJ and protects them from unfair attorney fees used toward claiming compensation. Attorneys now have to disclose a “reasonable hourly rate” and are prohibited from collecting fees before the exoneree is determined to be eligible for compensation by the state comptroller.

Having passed the House unanimously (143-0) and almost unanimously by the Senate (30-1), HB 417 is the latest legislative effort addressing a growing concern for how the wrongfully convicted are treated after their release. While Texas leads the nation in its efforts to alleviate the financial burden on exonerees, it also leads the nation in the number of incarcerations, executions and wrongful convictions.

Scott Henson, a lobbyist in Texas during the previous legislative session who works on criminal justice reform legislation alongside the Innocence Project of Texas, said that Texas has been gradually expanding exoneree benefits since the state passed its first compensation law in 2001. Henson explained that while there is a core Democratic base that supports the legislature’s push for reform, the most recent bipartisan display can be traced to a political movement that often times disagrees with the base.

According to Henson, Texas since the turn of the century has been following a trend of libertarian and religious ideology that is more skeptical of law enforcement and expanded government. “Over the last five sessions, a coalition of grassroots conservative and traditional critics of mass incarceration and government overreach has helped create a majority for these legislative reform bills.”

HB 417 itself is a narrowly defined expansion of benefits for non-habeas claims of innocence like Anthony Graves'. The bill will provide assistance to the wrongfully convicted who successfully prove they were tried and convicted based on an error of the court that violated their constitutional rights and who have the prosecutor agree that the case was dropped on grounds of “actual innocence.”

Unlike the number of exonerees who are released nationwide, Graves was able to find a job that affords him health insurance. He now works as an investigator for the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit legal organization that represents death penalty defendants.

Graves said he hopes that the legislature can further expand the benefits to others who do not fall under the current parameters of compensation eligibility. “It’s good, but I think they should have gone further,” he said. “Someone who has been released from prison for either prosecutorial misconduct or on actual innocence grounds should be allowed compensation. But that might be too liberal for Texas.”

In spite of his legislative victory and recent professional achievement, Graves continues to face hurdles from the state as he tries to rebuild his life. The Attorney General's Office reported in April that Graves owed approximately $5,400 in child support for five of the 12 years he spent on death row.

While the state already garnishes his wages from his work with the Texas Defender Service, it blocked a $250 speaking honorarium from a Prairie View A&M University speaking event. The Attorney General's Office maintains that the honorarium was blocked by an automated system without any influence from the office.

The Houston Chronicle reported that students began their own collection for the honorarium that Graves was  originally promised. “Sometimes it's $1, sometimes it's $5, sometimes it's $10,” one of the students told the Chronicle. “People are doing anything they can to help Mr. Graves.”

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