State must pay ex-inmate $2 million

AUSTIN (AP) — 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.

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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

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