In another wrongful conviction case out of Texas, Steven Phillips was imprisoned for 24 years for a series of sex crimes committed in 1982 and 1983. After enduring two trials he plead guilty to several other charges in a third trial to avoid a life sentence.
At the time he was arrested he and his wife, Traci Tucker, were expecting their first baby and were building a business together. She supplied him with an alibi but eyewitness testimony, which is inherently unreliable, convinced a jury of his peers that he was guilty.
The verdict left Ms. Tucker with a son to raise and a prison relationship to nurture. She said that she stood by her husband and visited him for ten years until he became indifferent, told her she needed to move on, and asked her for a divorce in 1992. Her ex says she supported him during the trials but stopped visiting after three years.
Fortunately for Mr. Phillips, DNA evidence proved he did not commit the rapes and in 2009 he was set free, receiving $6 million dollars in compensation for his wrongful conviction.
But the carefree life that he hoped would begin was not to be. Instead he has spent over $300,000 on legal fees battling his ex-wife and a lawyer, who charged him a million dollars to lobby lawmakers to increase the compensation for those exonerated of crimes. As he eloquently quipped, “When the cheese is on the table, the rats come out.”
Ms. Tucker received back child support in an earlier hearing but later took her ex back to court alleging that the hardship suffered by the wrongful conviction also hurt her and their child, and that she should receive a portion of his financial compensation. She said:
“He was a victim of a wrongful justice system, and his family was also… To me, marriage was for life, and I was going to be with him forever, and we were going to get through this — or so I thought.”
A Dallas County Judge agreed and awarded Ms. Tucker $150,000 last year, an award that Mr. Phillips is appealing.
Phillips argues that the compensation he received was not for lost wages, but payment for wrongful imprisonment, as defined by the law in Texas, which specifies a payment of $160,000 per year for every year spent in jail.
In addition, he claims the compensation cannot be regarded as a divisible family asset because he received it many years after the couple divorced.
It’s now up to the Texas Supreme Court who will hear the appeal which will be the first time a wrongful conviction compensation payment has been the subject of a family law claim.
But it won’t be the last. With the number of wrongful convictions racking up in the United States and the inevitable divorce of long-term inmates, this is clearly a legal issue whose time has come.
To quote Traci Tucker:
“It’s not all about the money. There’s just no recognition whatsoever. Just ‘sorry folks, sorry we ruined your life and took your provider and your best friend.’ Nothing.”
Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang