DALLAS (CN) – A man who was exonerated of the murder for which he spent over 26 years in prison can collect $2 million, the Texas Supreme Court ruled, expanding eligibility for compensation under state law.
Under the state’s Tim Cole Act, a wrongfully imprisoned person may only seek compensation from Texas if he was granted habeas relief based on a court finding he was “actually innocent” of the crime.
Though the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted Billy Frederick Allen habeas relief in 2009, State Comptroller Susan Combs had said Allen did not merit compensation.
Allen had been convicted in 1983 for the murders of Raven Lashbrook and James Sewell, both of University Park, and received 99-year concurrent sentences.
The comptroller said Allen was freed because of ineffective assistance of counsel, not actual innocence.
A unanimous panel of the state Supreme Court concluded otherwise Friday, saying the habeas relief amounted to actual innocence.
Substantive claims based on newly discovered evidence, such as DNA, are not the only permissible actual innocence claims under the act, according to the 19-page decision.
Procedural claims that are “intertwined” with constitutional errors are permissible as well
“He asserted a constitutional claim for ineffective assistance of counsel, which coupled with a proper defense of his case at trial would probably have concluded in a not guilty verdict,” Justice Dale Wainwright wrote for the panel.
The court based its holding on Schlup v. Delo, a 1995 ruling in which the U.S. Supreme Court defined actual innocence as “not merely require a showing that a reasonable doubt exists in the light of the new evidence, but rather that no reasonable juror would have found the defendant guilty.”
Under Schlup, the standard does not address the trial court’s independent judgment as to whether reasonable doubt exists. Rather the standard requires the court to make a probabilistic determination about what reasonable, properly instructed jurors would do.
In 2001, for example, the Texas Legislature changed the term “not guilty” in the statute to “actual innocence.” This gives credence to the idea that lawmakers wanted to include Schlup claims of actual innocence, the judges found.
Although the act did not define “actual innocence,” it is construed as a legal term of art that has acquired a technical meaning in the habeas corpus context, the ruling states.
Allen’s habeas order also clearly indicates that the defendant received relief because of actual innocence, Wainwright wrote.
“We do not agree with the comptroller that Allen’s relief is based, at most, on ineffective assistance of counsel, because that finding alone would be insufficient to grant habeas relief under Schlup,” the opinion states. “Even if a court does not explicitly state that its holding is based on actual innocence, implicitly the court must find that the applicant is actually innocent to grant relief on a Schlup claim.”