Billy Frederick Allen spent 26 years in prison for murder before his conviction was overturned, but not with gold-standard DNA proof of his innocence. Two Texas courts had agreed his conviction shouldn’t stand. A Texas Court of Appeals reversed it based on ineffective counsel. A lower court had ruled that the evidence against him was insufficient for a reasonable jury to convict him. But the state’s Comptroller had resisted paying compensation saying that Allen had not proven his innocence. On Friday, in a precedent-setting unanimous decision, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the lower criminal courts’ rulings had established that Allen had a legitimate innocence claim.
Allen is now expected to receive about $2 million in compensation for his wrongful conviction and incarceration.
Mark Godsey reported on this case earlier here. The ruling may change the prospects for many others in the nation who have had their convictions reversed with strong indication of innocence but without DNA proof.
The Washington Post reported here that the Comptroller’s office spokesman indicated the ruling had given “helpful guidance” for this and similar cases. The article notes that Texas has paid about $49.5 million for wrongful conviction and incarceration primarily in DNA-proven innocence cases or those involving clear police misconduct.
Twenty-three states have no legislated compensation policies for those wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. In states that do provide compensation, restrictions often prevent timely or easily accessed payment. Proof of factual innocence has been a common requirement.
Thanks to DNA, we now know that wrongful conviction occurs far more frequently than most Americans once imagined. We also know that wrongful conviction occurs in cases without DNA evidence. For people who have had convictions reversed with strong evidence of innocence in apparent miscarriages of justice, yesterday’s ruling provides hope that fairness can prevail even without DNA proof of innocence.