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Texas Supreme Court bars federal claims of innocent man freed from death row

By accepting Texas' offer of around $2 million for his wrongful imprisonment after a prosecutor framed him for the murder of a policeman, Alfred Brown must forego his federal lawsuit, the state's highest court ruled.

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — A death row exoneree cannot pursue a federal lawsuit over his incarceration since Texas is already compensating him for the 12 years he spent behind bars, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.

A Harris County jury in Houston convicted Alfred Brown, then 23, of capital murder and sentenced him to death in October 2005 after two of his friends who had been involved in the fatal shooting of a Houston policeman pinned the murder on him.

Brown, now 40, had an alibi: He was at his girlfriend Ericka Dockery’s home at the time of the homicide and had called her at work.

But prosecutor Daniel Rizzo threatened Dockery she would go to prison and be separated from her three daughters if she did not go along with his fabrication that Brown had killed the officer. Dockery’s testimony convinced jurors of Brown’s guilt.

Brown was released in 2015 after Harris County prosecutors moved to dismiss his case for insufficient evidence – the state’s case had fallen apart when a Houston police detective found phone records backing Brown’s alibi while cleaning his garage.

Brown sought compensation from Texas for his imprisonment under the Tim Cole Act – named for another innocent Black man who died in prison – but the state comptroller, who administers the payments, said he did not qualify because the habeas relief that got him out of prison was not a finding of actual innocence.

So in June 2017, Brown filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against three Houston police detectives who investigated his case, and prosecutor Rizzo – who by then had retired – alleging they had withheld exculpatory evidence and influenced trial witnesses, resulting in his murder conviction. He also claimed Harris County and the city of Houston had unconstitutional policies that led to his conviction.

Discovery in the case uncovered an email showing Rizzo had withheld from Brown’s defense team records supporting his alibi, leading to a ruling by the Texas Supreme Court he had proven his actual innocence and was entitled to Tim Cole Act compensation.

Texas agreed to pay Brown around $2 million. Two days before Christmas 2020, he received a $980,000 check from the state. It agreed to give him the rest in annuity payments over the rest of his life.

A federal judge then dismissed Brown’s case. She decided since the state had compensated him he was barred from additional recovery through his lawsuit.

Brown appealed to the Fifth Circuit and it asked the Texas Supreme Court for guidance.

The New Orleans-based appellate court tasked the state justices with answering a certified question: Does the Tim Cole Act bar “maintenance of a lawsuit involving the same subject matter against any governmental units or employees that was filed before the claimant received compensation under that statute?”

The state high court shut down Brown’s federal claims Friday.

“Based on the text, structure, and history of the Tim Cole Act, along with our prior decisions interpreting it, we must hold that a claimant may not maintain such a suit once he has received Tim Cole Act compensation, and therefore answer the Fifth Circuit’s certified question yes,” Justice Evan Young wrote for the unanimous court. (Emphasis in original.)

Brown’s attorney, Charles Biles with the Dallas firm Steptoe Johnson, said in a hearing last September the case hinged on the meaning of five words in the statute: “may not bring any action.”

He argued that phrase made clear the Texas Legislature did not mean to foreclose pending lawsuits, but only to stop people who are paid by the state from then suing local governments and officials they believe are to blame for their imprisonment.

But Young found context in the statute subsection at issue refutes Brown’s reading.

“Start with the title: ‘Employees Not Liable After Payment of Compensation.’ The title suggests that ‘after’ the State has paid a claimant, government employees are no longer ‘liable.’ That understanding runs counter to Brown’s interpretation, which would allow government employees to remain liable even after payment,” he wrote in a 21-page order.

Young also keyed on the words “any action” in this sentence from the statute: a “person who receives compensation under this chapter may not bring any action involving the same subject matter.”    

By including the word any, Young determined, the Legislature had conditioned Tim Cole payments on a pledge from exonerees not to bring any lawsuits, either pending at the time of the compensation or after they receive it.

“The statute, in other words, suggests an intent to make the State’s payment of compensation the final word, foreclosing further proceedings in any forum regarding a claimant’s allegation that his imprisonment had been wrongful,” Young opined.

Brown’s attorneys did not respond to a request for comment on the order.

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