Pubdate: Tue, 05 Sep 2006
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2006 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: Rick Casey, Houston Chronicle
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


Most of us probably agree that Texans who spend years  in prison for
crimes they didn't commit should be  compensated.

And most of us probably agree that includes the 35  residents of
Tulia, a small Panhandle town, who did  time based solely on the
testimony of a rogue cop who  has since been convicted of lying under
oath during an  investigation of his undercover operation.

The story of Tulia played the national news as a tawdry  example of
Texas injustice. But the state responded  well to the scandal.

A judge had ruled and the local district attorney  agreed that the
undercover narcotics investigation was  irreparably tainted by the
officer's dishonesty. Some  of the convicted, it turned out, weren't
even in town  on the days he said they sold him drugs.

The Court of Criminal Appeals ordered an investigation  into the case,
and the Legislature passed a law freeing  those still in prison, some
for as long as four years.

Ten will have to wait Gov. Rick Perry pardoned the 35 in  2003 upon the
unanimous recommendation of the state  Board of Pardons and Parole.

Ten have already begun receiving checks under a Texas  law that
provides $25,000 for each year of false  imprisonment.

Some will receive as much as $100,000, half now and  half if they go a
year without being convicted of  another crime.

It is not all that much compensation, considering not  only were these
people imprisoned, but many had a  difficult time finding work after
serving their time.

But 10 who have applied will have to wait.

The reason: These 10 were already on probation or  parole when
undercover officer Tom Coleman made his  cases against them. When they
were charged with  felonies, their pardons and paroles were revoked
and  they were sent to prison.

Coleman was no fool. Among those he fingered were some  people already
found guilty of drug offenses.

A reasonable caveat, but ... But the law providing  compensation
denies payment to people who are serving  concurrent sentences for
crimes other than the one of  which they were falsely accused.

That's a reasonable caveat, but did legislators  contemplate a
situation in which the only reason for a  person being imprisoned for
one crime is that he or she  was falsely accused of a second crime?

State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, whose office  is in charge
of distributing payments for false  imprisonment, thinks not.

Last month she wrote Attorney General Greg Abbott a  letter asking for
a clarification, reports the Austin  American-Statesman.

"Although I am fully satisfied that a great injustice  occurred in
Tulia and that equity clearly justifies  full payment, there is a
statutory issue that I am  compelled to present to you for your
opinion," she  said.

Her letter concerned the case of Jason Paul Fry, but  the decision
will apply to others as well.

Fry was convicted of drug possession, but given  probation -- a common
punishment in relatively minor  drug possession cases.

It makes sense as a wake-up call, unless someone is  then thrown in
prison for a bogus probation violation.

It is, of course, possible that some of those  prosecuted based on
Coleman's testimony were guilty. In  fact, one woman who was pardoned
told an FBI  investigator that she had sold Coleman more drugs than
the charges against her indicated.

The district attorney who cleared the way for  compensation with a
letter critical of Coleman's  performance said some of the accused may
have been  guilty. And Brent Hamilton, the Plainview lawyer
representing 19 of those seeking compensation, said the  district
attorney "may not have been wrong."

But it is also clear that many of those convicted --  even some who,
under pressure pleaded guilty to lesser  charges -- were falsely accused.

In America, fortunately, we don't believe in punishing  a group of
people because some of them may have been  guilty. We should not deny
just compensation to some  because others may not deserve it.

Nor should we exclude those whose probation or parole  was revoked
because of the discredited testimony of a  disgraced police officer.
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