DALLAS (CN) - A man exonerated of a rape for which he served 25 years in prison does not have to split compensation from Texas with his ex-wife, an appeals court ruled.
Steven Phillips had been married to Traci Tucker for just under two years when he was arrested and charged in 1982. She divorced him 10 years later while he was serving a lengthy prison sentence.
DNA evidence cleared Phillips in 2008, however, after he had spent 24 years behind bars.
The Tim Cole Act in Texas entitles Phillips to about $6 million in compensation for his wrongful conviction and imprisonment, and Tucker sued him in 2010 for lost wages during their marriage, which she argued was community property rather than Phillip's separate property.
Judge Lori Chrisman Hockett with the 255th Judicial District Court awarded Tucker some of the money in September 2012.
"Of the compensation and benefits received by the respondent for his wrongful imprisonment during the marriage to petitioner, $228,919 was the community property of the petitioner and the respondent, which was not divided by the divorce," Hockett wrote. "Petitioner is entitled to receive from the respondent $114,459.50 for her 50% community property interest."
A three-judge panel with the 5th District Court of Appeals reversed the award Monday, saying the plain language of the law states the payments is "based solely on the period of wrongful incarceration and is not based on, or related to, any particular exoneree's economic loss or lost wages while in prison."
Phillips' attorney, Randy Turner in Fort Worth, said his client "really deserved a break."
"Steven was thrilled when I gave him the news," Turner said in an interview. "First he was imprisoned for 25 years for crimes he did not commit. Then, when he was finally exonerated and released from prison, a greedy Lubbock lawyer claimed he was entitled to half of the $2 million Steven received from the state. We litigated that lawsuit and, when it was finally concluded, Steven's ex-wife sued him so she could get a piece of the pie. He was ready for the lawsuits to end so he could get on with his life."
The Monday reversal rejected Tucker's attempt to liken her ex's Tim Cole Act payout to a settlement, since exonerees give up their right to sue the state in federal court for compensation.
"As Tucker concedes, however, the act itself does not characterize any portion of the monetary compensation awarded under the act as lost wages," Justice David Evans wrote for the panel. "On the contrary, all eligible exonerees are entitled to compensation based solely on the number of years wrongfully incarcerated multiplied by $80,000 without regard to the exoneree's education, work history, earning capacity, or other evidence of the economic losses incurred while wrongfully imprisoned."
While sympathetic to the suffering of families of exonerees, the appeals court noted the law has a provision for the recovery of unpaid child support. Tucker was paid under this provision, Evans noted.
"But nowhere in the act does the Legislature provide compensation for the spouse of an exoneree," Evans wrote. "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."
Phillips sued his former attorney, Kevin Glasheen, of Lubbock, in 2009 claiming that Glasheen failed to inform Phillips he was, at the time, entitled to $50,000 for each year of his wrongful imprisonment, even without filing a lawsuit.
Passage of the Tim Cole Act in 2009, after Phillips' release, increased the per-year payout to $80,000.
There are other exonerees like Phillips who feared they would also be sued if the 5th Court fuled for Tucker, attorney Turner said.
"If the court had ruled in his ex-wife's favor, it would have opened the floodgates to litigation by all exonerees' ex-wives," he said. "Whenever a future exoneree walked out of the prison gates, his first stop would have to be at an attorney's office to prepare for the inevitable lawsuit. Most exonerees' wives divorce them while they are in prison. Some of these men, who spent decades in prison and have no concept of how to manage money, have spent the lump-sum check they received from the state. If they were sued by their ex-wives, they could be hit with judgments for money they no longer have and forced to file bankruptcy."
Tucker's attorney, Jerry Patchen in Houston, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
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