AUSTIN, Texas – The Texas Supreme Court ordered the state Friday to pay about $2 million to an ex-inmate who spent 26 years in prison for murder before his conviction was overturned, a decision legal experts said could set a new standard for when ex-prisoners should be compensated.
Texas has paid nearly $50 million to former inmates who have been cleared. But state Comptroller Susan Combs had resisted paying Billy Frederick Allen, arguing that his conviction was overturned because he had ineffective lawyers, not because he had proven his innocence.
The state Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Dale Wainwright, disagreed, saying the state's criminal courts had shown Allen had a legitimate innocence claim and he should be paid.
Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas, which works to free wrongfully convicted inmates, said Friday's ruling could open the door for more compensation claims from ex-prisoners.
"The floodgates are not opening, but what this will do is give a fair shake to people who are innocent," Blackburn said. "This is a major step forward in terms of opening up and broadening the law of exoneration in general."
Texas' compensation law is the most generous in the U.S., according to the national Innocence Project. Freed inmates who are declared innocent by a judge, prosecutors or a governor's pardon can collect $80,000 for every year of imprisonment, along with an annuity.
What makes Allen's case different is that he didn't have an innocence declaration. What he had instead was a Court of Criminal Appeals ruling that reversed his conviction based on ineffective counsel and supported a lower court's finding that the evidence against him was too weak for a reasonable jury to convict him.
In effect, the Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest court in criminal matters, supported Allen's claim of "actual innocence" and he should be paid, the state Supreme Court ruled.
Kristopher Moore, one of Allen's attorneys, said the ruling should send a message to Combs that the state's top financial officer is not qualified to interpret criminal law.
"The only body allowed to answer the question of innocence in a case like this is the Court of Criminal Appeals, not the comptroller," Moore said.
Combs spokesman R.J. DeSilva called the ruling "helpful guidance" for the comptroller and said the state has already started the process of paying Allen.
"The Court's decision will also help us pay any other exonerees with similar circumstances to Mr. Allen," DeSilva said.
Combs' office has challenged several compensation claims before the Texas Supreme Court. Another ex-inmate, Richard Sturgeon, had his conviction for a 1998 robbery overturned based on problems with his trial attorney and witnesses. He filed a claim similar to Allen's.
Texas has paid 80 people about $49.5 million for wrongful conviction and imprisonment. Most were freed through DNA testing or because their cases involved a drug detective in the Texas Panhandle town of Tulia who was later convicted of perjury.
While DNA evidence has led to most of Texas' exonerations, those cases are expected to dwindle because DNA testing has become standard in modern investigations where such evidence exists. More former inmates like Allen — whose case has no DNA evidence — are likely to account for more compensation cases, Blackburn said.
"Billy Allen is a classic case where technically speaking you could say that he wasn't really exonerated because certain magic words weren't used," Blackburn said. "The Supreme Court has a much more common sense approach to innocence."
Allen was convicted in the 1983 fatal shootings of James Perry Sewell and Sewell's girlfriend, Raven Dannelle Lashbrook. Allen said he'd frequently visited Sewell because he wanted to sell Sewell scraps of gold as part of a legitimate business, and that he'd leaned against Sewell's car a few days before the couple's deaths, according to court filings.
Court documents said Sewell was found "gagged, handcuffed and covered with blood" near an apartment building, and that Allen's handprint was discovered on top of the car, where Lashbrook was found dead. A police officer testified that when he asked Sewell who attacked him, he answered: "Billy Allen."
But a defense investigator after the trial found two paramedics who heard Sewell saying three names as he was dying. One heard him say "Billy Wayne Allen," the name of another possible suspect. The other paramedic remembered hearing a middle name, but couldn't recall it.
That new evidence left the officer's testimony ineffective, and the remaining major piece of evidence — the palm print on the car — would not have been enough to convict him, the Court of Criminal Appeals determined. Allen's conviction was overturned in 2009 and he was freed from prison.
Although prosecutors dismissed the charges, they said they still considered him a suspect and have kept the case open.