Both family law and criminal law experts across the nation currently have their eyes on Texas as a first-of-its-kind property division case is currently making its way through the state court system. Here, the issue being explored is whether former spouses of exonerated prison inmates are entitled to any portion of the money granted to them by the state as compensation for their wrongful conviction.
According to the facts of the case, the husband and wife — we’ll call them Steven and Traci — were married back in 1982 and had a child on the way. However, a short time later Steven was charged by law enforcement offices with a multitude of serious sex crimes and eventually given a rather lengthy prison sentence.
While the couple attempted to make things work, with Traci making prison visits, raising the couple’s son and exploring ways to get Steven out of prison, the relationship ultimately deteriorated over the next ten years. In 1992, the couple officially called it quits by filing for divorce.
Shockingly, Steven was released from prison in 2009 after DNA tests definitively proved that another man had committed the crimes for which he was convicted. As dictated by state law, he was awarded a rather significant sum — nearly $6 million — for his 24 years of wrongful incarceration.
Interestingly, Traci filed a lawsuit soon after Steven’s release claiming that she was entitled to a portion of this compensation as reimbursement for all that she had spent and all that she had lost.
“To me, marriage was for life, and I was going to be with him forever, and we were going to get through this — or so I thought,” she said.
A Dallas County Court ultimately found her arguments persuasive and ordered Steven to pay her $153,000, almost three percent of his entire compensation package. The judge arrived at this amount by calculating legal fees and considering the recommendations of an expert witness who calculated Traci’s half of Steven’s lost wages over this timeframe as roughly $114,000.
Steven has since appealed the decision, arguing that the compensation from the state was not meant to serve as reimbursement for lost wages, but rather was dictated by state law. He also argued that he didn’t actually receive the money until long after the divorce, such that it wouldn’t even be subject to the property division in the first place.
Most experts believe that this case of first impression will ultimately end up before the Texas Supreme Court. In the meantime, some state lawmakers have taken note of it and even admitted to overlooking this issue.
“This is an example of the law of unintended consequences,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas). “We did not think about entitlement by spouses who had become divorced from these innocent men while they were in prison.”
It should be very interesting to see what transpires in this case …
Source: The Monitor, “Exoneree faces ex-wife in compensation lawsuit,” Brandi Grissom, June 18, 2013