Steven Phillips spent 25 years in prison as an innocent man for a string of rapes he didn't commit. He was exonerated in 2008 based on DNA evidence. He has always said life is much more complicated outside prison walls. Better, sure, but complicated. Add around $4 million dollars in tax-free compensation from the state for his wrongful imprisonment, and he wound up a free man with a fresh start -- and a couple of heretofore unknown and completely novel legal troubles.
Seems like no sooner had he he settled with his former attorney after a prolonged and acrimonious fight over legal bills than he was due back in court again. This week, ex-wife Traci Tucker will ask a jury for a portion of Phillips's millions. It's what legal experts call a "case of first impression." There is exactly zero case law regarding what, if anything, a former spouse is owed if an innocent man gets convicted and the state compensates him handsomely for his troubles. The two were married for 10 years, almost all of it during his imprisonment. Phillips says he didn't see much of his wife after the first three years on the inside. They divorced in 1991. "She's been with a guy for 20, 25 years," Phillips tells Unfair Park. "They're married and have a child now. She didn't do that time. She didn't visit me down in prison or take care of me."
Tucker, on the other hand, said in an affidavit that Phillips became "bitter," confessed "bizarre and disgusting things" about his troubled sexual history as a Peeping Tom and serial genital exposer, and finally pushed her away completely. It was Phillips, she says, who asked for the divorce.
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The couple has a child together -- a son, born the year after Phillips went to jail. Tucker has since been compensated under the Tim Cole Act for the unpaid child support.
An email from a spokesperson for Houston attorney Jerry Patchen, who is representing Tucker, says Phillips's compensation amounts, in part, to lost wages, which Tucker would have been entitled to under a divorce settlement as "community property."
Phillips's attorney, Tom McKenzie, says there is no language in the Tim Cole Act indicating that the compensation is for lost wages -- it's more like "winning the lottery 20 years after a divorce." Besides, he points out, Phillips was a roofer before he went to prison and the compensation provides $160,000 a year for each year of wrongful imprisonment, split into a lump sum and an annuity.
"The overall issue," McKenzie says, "is when people come into money, everybody comes out of the walls."