(CN) — A Texas man who spent 10 years on death row for a crime he did not commit is entitled to compensation, the state’s highest court ruled Friday, despite state officials’ repeated refusal to pay him.
Alfred Dewayne Brown “checked all the statutory boxes” in asking for compensation, the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court wrote in a unanimous opinion, and Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar had a “purely ministerial duty” under state law to approve the request.
Brown was wrongfully sentenced to death for the 2003 murders of two people, including a Houston police officer. He was released from prison in 2015 after it was revealed that the prosecutor had suppressed phone records that pointed to Brown’s innocence and corroborated his alibi.
Brown was formally declared innocent last year, after a special review of the case concluded that he “could not physically have been at the crime scene.” The investigation also found that the prosecutor, former Harris County Assistant District Attorney Daniel Rizzo, “was fully aware” of the exculpatory evidence but failed to disclose it at trial as required by law.
After his release, Texas repeatedly rejected Brown’s attempts to be compensated for his full 12 years and 62 days behind bars.
On Friday, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the comptroller had no authority under state law to reject Brown’s second compensation application based on concerns about jurisdictional issues with the lower court dismissing the criminal case, concerns that were echoed in court filings by the Houston Police Officer’s Union.
“The comptroller exceeded his ministerial duty by looking beyond the verified documents to reverse the district court’s determination that it had jurisdiction to clear Brown’s name by amending the original dismissal order to declare him actually innocent,” the court wrote.
In an interview, Brown’s pro-bono attorney Neal Manne described him as “overwhelmed” and “very happy” with the ruling.
“Dewayne really sees this as kind of the final vindication of him as being an innocent person,” Manne said.
“Dewayne works hard at his job, he’s a truck driver. We talked for a minute and then Dewayne basically said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a job to do, I’ve got to get back to work,’” the attorney added. “I think in some ways for Dewayne, it was never about the money. It’s been about the state of Texas…acknowledging that he was innocent and acknowledging that the state treated him unjustly.”
Brown, who now lives in Louisiana, stands to receive just under $2 million after the court’s ruling, Manne said.
In a statement, Hegar’s office said the state “intends to comply with the court’s directive and will begin the process of compensating Mr. Brown.”
Brown’s case had become a high-profile example of the criminal justice system gone wrong, with the prominent group the Innocence Project advocating for his freedom and his story featured in the 2020 Netflix series “The Innocence Files.”
In a 2016 speech, Republican former Texas Governor Rick Perry denounced Brown’s treatment, saying his life was “almost ruined because of an overzealous prosecutor who concealed exonerating evidence.” Perry also filed an amicus brief in June urging the Texas Supreme Court to side with Brown in the compensation matter.
Conversely, the state’s current Attorney General Ken Paxton, also a Republican, had urged state officials to deny Brown’s compensation request, according to the Houston Chronicle.
A 2017 civil rights lawsuit Brown brought against multiple Houston-area officials remains pending in federal court, though his claims against the prosecutor who sent him to death row were previously dismissed based on the prosecutor’s “absolute immunity” and the court in August refused to let Brown reinstate those claims.
Longer-term, the Friday ruling from the Texas Supreme Court could pave a clearer path for other wrongfully convicted people seeking compensation from the state.
“This is very precedential,” Manne said. “This will be the controlling law now for the way the comptroller has to approach every petition, by every person who has a declaration of actual innocence.”