Houston Chronicle also has an editorial calling for the state to provide tools to support the wrongfully convicted.
AUSTIN — Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller apparently violated court policies for handling death penalty cases when she closed the court clerk's doors on Michael Richard's efforts to file a last-minute appeal before his execution.
In response to a national outcry against Keller's actions, the court adopted written policies last month to make certain a death row inmate's appeals always go first to an assigned judge.
In response to a public information request from the Houston Chronicle, Keller said in a letter that no written court procedures existed Sept. 25, the day of Richard's execution. However, she said the new written rules reflected the court's unwritten policies on that day.
Keller was not the judge assigned to handle Richard's appeal when she decided to close the clerk's office so that Richard's lawyers could not file a late appeal.
Judge Cheryl Johnson was in charge of Richard's case on the day of his execution, but did not learn of his lawyers' attempts to file for a stay of execution until the day after his death.
A lawyer who has been representing other attorneys in filing complaints against Keller for her handling of the Richard case said Keller's response to the Chronicle's information request clearly shows Keller violated the court's unwritten policies in cutting off Richard's appeal.
"To me, it's a pretty stunning admission that she operated totally outside of their procedures," said Jim Harrington, who has coordinated attorney complaints filed against Keller with the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct. "She doesn't have respect for the processes of the court, which are designed to protect due process."
''I decided, if I ever got another chance," said the wrongly imprisoned Texan Ronald Gene Taylor, "I would do things right." After 14 years behind bars, Taylor finally has been given his chance, released after a sentence sealed by Houston's corrupt, inept former crime lab. Taylor is eligible for up to $700,000 for his lost years. But succeeding in his new life will take more than money.
Taylor is one of more than 200 inmates exonerated by DNA evidence nationally. He is fortunate in that Texas has now become one of the most responsible states in compensating the wrongly convicted for their stolen lives. Even so, Texas — like all but three states — offers its wronged citizens no job training, no health insurance and no mental health support. Without them, many will not succeed.
The Legislature in its last session doubled the amount the state compensates those it wrongly imprisoned: Texas now grants $50,000 for each year wrongfully confined. Twenty-eight states give no compensation at all; some that do, offer truly insulting sums — like Louisiana, which gives those its criminal justice system victimized $15,000 per year, with a cap of $150,000.
The direct credit for Texas' policy goes to state Sen. Rodney Ellis, according to the nonprofit Innocence Project. Ellis, a Houston lawmaker, worked for years to make the compensation more just, often bringing exonerees to testify at the Statehouse in Austin.
"You had legislators who looked into the eyes of these individuals who lost 10 or 15 years of their lives ... and they felt an obligation," recalled Innocence Project spokesman Eric Ferrero.
But even financial compensation can't correct the engulfing handicaps that exonerees, including Taylor, now face. To start with, his payment may take up to two years to arrive — if he receives any money at all. Taylor is eligible for compensation, but first the governor has to grant him what is called a pardon for innocence (which Taylor is expected to get).
Still, that's two years in which a traumatized man with few skills and a blot on his name must try to support himself — and two years in which his past destructive habits could easily catch up with him. Most exonerees, a recent New York Times series reported, rely on family, friends or even strangers as they await their recompense. When they do get it, they often squander it, many times through ignorance.
That is why the Innocence Project now offers financial guidance to those exonerees it helps, as well as a special fund to help them survive while they wait for their checks from the state. This year, the project added a third component: a full-time social worker, to be joined by a second next year. The caseworkers are especially needed to help the wrongly imprisoned find pro bono health care, since many leave prison with serious untreated health problems.
The Innocence Project also has a special exoneree fund that provides counseling when other sources are absent. As Chronicle writer Roma Khanna's recent story showed, even exonerees like Taylor — who was buoyed during years in prison by his fiancée — face dizzying emotional challenges. How to rebuild a relationship interrupted by years of separation? How to overcome grief and rage for all the wasted time? How to stave off depression, anxiety and paranoia, all aggravated by a life in prison?
Simply having been in prison, even wrongly, creates a stigma that can make job-hunting daunting. Add to this the reality that many exonerees went into their sentences with limited education or skills, and the prospects for finding work unaided can be bleak.
Texas, which must bear the responsibility for its wrongful imprisonments, should look to the Innocence Project for ways to exonerate itself. A full-time social worker would help the system's 30 current exonerees navigate the bewildering new life they return to.
Free tuition at community college and state schools, as Montana offers, would train intellects wrongfully deprived behind bars. Access to health care, mental and physical, would help repair minds and bodies scarred by prison. Money is the state's symbolic way of atoning for its wrongs to innocent citizens. But only physical and mental support will give men like Ronald Taylor the chance to truly be free.