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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Wrongly convicted Texas man owed $1.8 mil under new law

DALLAS (NNPA) - Thomas McGowan's journey from prison to prosperity is about to culminate in $1.8 million, and he knows just how to spend it: A house with three bedrooms, stainless steel kitchen appliances and a washer and dryer.
“I'll let my girlfriend pick out the rest,” said Mr. McGowan, who was exonerated last year based on DNA evidence after spending nearly 23 years in prison for rape and robbery.t_mcgowan09-29-2009.jpg
He and other exonerees in Texas, which leads the nation in freeing the wrongly convicted, soon will become instant millionaires under a new state law that recently took effect.
Exonerees will get $80,000 for each year they spent behind bars. The compensation also includes lifetime annuity payments that for most of the wrongly convicted are worth between $40,000 and $50,000 a year—making it by far the nation's most generous package.
“I'm nervous and excited,” said Mr. McGowan, 50. “It's something I never had, this amount of money. I didn't have any money—period.”
His payday for his imprisonment—a time he described as “a nightmare,” “hell” and “slavery”—should come by mid-November after the state's 45-day processing period.
Exonerees receive an array of social services, including job training, tuition credits and access to medical and dental treatment. Though 27 other states have some form of compensation law for the wrongly convicted, none comes close to offering the social services and money Texas provides.
The annuity payments are especially popular among exonerees, who acknowledge their lack of experience in managing personal finances. A social worker who meets with the exonerees is setting them up with financial advisers and has led discussions alerting them to swindlers.
The annuities are “a way to guarantee these guys ... payments for life as long as they follow the law,” said Kevin Glasheen, a Lubbock attorney representing a dozen exonerees.
Two who served about 26 years in prison for rape will receive lump sums of about $2 million apiece. Another, Steven Phillips, who spent about 24 years in prison for sexual assault and burglary, will get about $1.9 million.
The biggest compensation package will likely go to James Woodard, who spent more than 27 years in prison for a 1980 murder that DNA testing later showed he did not commit. He eventually could receive nearly $2.2 million but first needs a writ from the state's Court of Criminal Appeals or a pardon from the governor.
Mr. McGowan and the others are among 38 DNA exonerees in Texas, according to the Innocence Project, a New York legal center that specializes in overturning wrongful convictions. Dallas County alone has 21 cases in which a judge overturned guilty verdicts based on DNA evidence, though prosecutors plan to retry one of those.
Exonerees who previously collected lump sum payments under an old compensation law are ineligible for the new lump sums but will receive the annuities. Whether the money will be subject to taxes remains unsettled, Atty. Glasheen said.
The monthly payments are expected to be a lifeline for exonerees like Wiley Fountain, 53, who received nearly $390,000 in compensation—minus federal taxes—but squandered it by, as he said, “living large.” He ended up homeless, spending his nights in a tattered sleeping bag behind a liquor store.
But after getting help from fellow exonerees and social workers, Mr. Fountain now lives in an apartment and soon will have a steady income.
Mr. Fountain's story is a cautionary tale for the other exonerees, who meet monthly and lately have been discussing the baggage that comes with the money.

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