It was a question the legal system had never faced before: If the state pays a man millions of dollars for locking him up for a crime he didn't commit, does the wife he left behind get a piece of that? There was no need for an answer before the passage of the Tim Cole Act in 2009, which awards the wrongfully imprisoned some $160,000 for each year spent behind bars.
But according to Judge Lori Hockett's ruling Tuesday in family court, the answer is, for now at least, yes.
Back in the 1980s, Steven Phillips was convicted of a string of Dallas rapes. He left behind his new wife, Traci Tucker, who was pregnant with his child. After ten years of marriage, they divorced. Phillips says they drifted apart, and that she stopped coming to visit him after the first three years. Tucker's lawyers have said she supported him throughout their marriage, and that he pushed her away. Meanwhile, she raised their son on her own. Twenty-seven years later, Phillips was exonerated on DNA evidence. Under the Tim Cole Act, the state owed him $4-$6 million, half payable immediately in a lump sum, the other half doled out in an annuity for the rest of his life.
The state compensated Tucker for the back child support, but she sued Phillips in 2010 to get a cut of his award. Her attorneys say the payments are fair game because they partially compensate for lost wages. Phillips' attorneys say the award has nothing to do with lost wages, because each exoneree gets compensated at the same rate, no matter their earning power before they got locked up.
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In fact, Sen. Rodney Ellis, one of the bill's architects, said in an affidavit that the state legislature never intended to compensate exonerees for lost wages; otherwise it would have been based on their income. It was a way to keep the payments tax-exempt. As for the bereft families, the legislature, Ellis said, recognized that an imprisoned man can't care for his wife and kids. "That is why we drafted the compensation statute to include any child support payments and interest on child support arrearage that are owed by the exoneree," he wrote. (Judge Hockett wouldn't allow the affidavit into evidence)
Nevertheless, the judge awarded Tucker $114,000, calculated by splitting the amount Phillips would have earned during their marriage as a roofing contractor.
"Justice required there be some acknowledgement and compensation for these wives, who have also suffered immeasurably under economic hardship and stigma, and raised the children and visited and supported the man during trial and his incarceration," says Houston attorney Jerry Patchen, Tucker's attorney
Randy Turner, Phillips' attorney, says he's confident the ruling won't stand. "This will be a short-lived victory. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind it will be reversed by the Dallas Court of Appeals," he says. "Problem is, we have a trial judge who unfortunately didn't understand the law. I don't blame her. She's a family law judge and doesn't deal with things like this."