"Jesus didn't want us to have a trial this close to his birthday," Steven Phillips's attorney, Tom McKenzie, said yesterday. He was joking, we're pretty sure.
His point: That the prospect of an ex-wife now 20 years divorced from Phillips cutting a slice out of the roughly $4 million paid to him by the state for a quarter century in prison as an innocent man so offended the Heavens that they intervened divinely.
What really happened: A juror Googled Phillips and poisoned the well, and the judge found out about it, resulting in a successful motion by McKenzie for a mistrial. It's a stay, albeit a temporary one. McKenzie says he expects they'll be back in court to retry the case this summer, to once again venture out into completely uncharted areas of divorce law, heretofore a stranger to the intersection of exonerees, big state payouts and the wives they leave behind.
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Phillips was put away in 1982 for a string of rapes he didn't commit. He was a convenient suspect who fit the bill with a troubled sexual past, but it wasn't until 2008, after DNA testing excluded him as the rapist, that he was finally set free. The Tim Cole Act provides $160,000 for each year of wrongful imprisonment to Texas exonerees, to be split into a lump sum and an annuity. Steven, with his long years inside, collected more than most.
He was married to Traci Tucker for about a decade, most of it while he was locked up. The two had a child together, and she's since been compensated for the unpaid child support through the compensation law. But, until the mistrial Tuesday, she was suing him for a cut of the millions he was paid, her argument being that the money is, in part, for lost wages and subject to a divorce settlement. Not to mention the fact that she raised his kid alone.
McKenzie says there is no language in the Tim Cole Act classifying any of the money as recompense for lost wages. Phillips adds that he didn't see much of his wife after the first three years in prison. A spokesperson for Tucker's attorney said she continued to visit him throughout his prison term, even depositing money into his commissary account regularly. In a deposition, Tucker said it was Phillips who pushed her away.
This is only the latest in a series of legal woes afflicting the exoneree who can't seem to stay out of court (and jail). He just settled with his former attorney -- who fought to see compensation raised for all Texas exonerees -- over a million in fees he refused to pay. He got busted with a trifling amount of cocaine hidden in a to-go container in Carrollton. And, of course, there's the whole spending-half-of-his-life-in-prison-for-something-he-didn't-do thing.