Jeff Gamso raises a troubling unintended consequence stemming from Texas’ financial generosity (meant in the most relative sense) toward the folks it wrongfully convicts. Well, at least toward the wrongfully convicted who aren’t put to death before they can claim their compensation.
Meet Steven Phillips.The 24 years Steven Phillips spent in prison for a crime he didn’t commit wasn’t served by himself, but with his wife, his children. That the marriage didn’t survive until he was freed by DNA doesn’t make Traci a bad person.
In 1982, Steve and Traci Phillips were starting a new business. Traci was pregnant with their first child. Life was good.
Then Steve was charged with a string of sex crimes. Brandi Grissom in the Texas Tribune picks up the story.
In two trials in 1982 and 1983, he was convicted based largely on eyewitness identifications, despite his wife’s vehement protestations from the witness stand that he could not have committed the crimes.That’s what people do for the ones they love who are in prison. But you know, those visits, the cash, the raising the kid. Trying to make the child understand why Daddy isn’t home. And the neighbors and the other kids at school and . . . .
He pleaded guilty to additional charges to prevent a third trial and a likely life sentence. She said she spent the next decade visiting him in prison, raising their son, sending money for items her husband needed, and hoping to find a way to get him out.
When Steve was found actually innocent, he was made as whole as Texas permits.
In 2009, the state awarded him lump sum payments totaling more than $2 million, and a monthly annuity of more than $11,000. In total, his compensation package for the time he spent in prison is worth nearly $6 million, not including health care and education benefits he is also eligible to receive.Traci then asked the question, “what about me?” At first blush, it seems kinda disingenuous. Steve spend the past 24 years locked in a cell while Traci, well, suffered vicariously. It’s not that Traci didn’t suffer, but it’s not the same suffering as Steve, right?
She’s now Traci Tucker, and she figures she’s entitled to a share.
“He was a victim of a wrongful justice system, and his family was also,” Tucker said.
Which is certainly true. And is how the judge who awarded her a bit over $150,000 looked at it. Steve, of course, doesn’t quite look at it that way. The $6 million he got was for what was done to him, not to them. And while he appreciates her testifying for him, well, yeah. But 24 years. And she never came to visit all that often even before the divorce.
If the question was settled by who suffered more, Steve or Traci, then Steve would have to win. But that’s not the real question. What is reflected by Traci’s claim and award is that the wrong done Steve touches other lives, and the harm is most real. As Gamso notes, Traci and her family weren’t living the high life following Steve’s wrongful conviction. She lost a husband. Her children lost a father. They had no choice but live with the humiliation, the hatred, society imposes on the convicted, even when they’re innocent.
Traci had to pay for the food, the roof over their heads and the shoes on the kids’ feet. Texas pays for the guy staring at walls and bars, day after day, night after night, for 24 years, when he should have been in the fresh air watching ball games and explaining why Tony Romo was never a franchise quarterback.
There is a whole lot of life we live, and it involves a lot more people than most of us think about. Traci Phillips endured a decade of misery due to her husband’s wrongful conviction. Even if it wasn’t as bad as what he endured, she was no more deserving.
So what about Traci?
“This is an example of the law of unintended consequences,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas. “We did not think about entitlement by spouses who had become divorced from these innocent men while they were in prison.”
So should we just add this to the list of things no one thought about when convicting the innocent? It may not offer any solution, any help for Traci, but at least it’s not a strident defense of the system, imperfect but….
The shame now is that Traci and Steve went to war over this issue, as the last thing a guy freed from 24 years of wrongful imprisonment needs is more time in court. Traci divorced Steve long before he was freed, whether because marriage to a guy, even if innocent, in prison forever isn’t nearly as much fun as she thought on her wedding day, or because they started to fight when the prison cell wasn’t big enough for the two of them. Who knows why, but it’s hard to blame Traci for not standing by her man until the miracle of release happened. It’s just too long a bet for someone to stake their life on, even if they’re the one on the outside.
The answer to the conundrum, of course, is not to convict the innocent. But then we might leave a guilty person free, and nobody in Texas wants that to happen.