Former Death Row Inmate Seeking Compensation Could Test Texas's Much-Lauded Reforms

A former death row inmate is seeking nearly $2 million from the state after he spent more than 12 years in prison following a wrongful conviction, the Houston Chronicle first reported yesterday

In 2005, Alfred Brown was convicted of capital murder after he allegedly murdered Houston Police Officer Charles Clarke, "execution style," during a botched robbery at a check-cashing store in southeast Houston two years earlier. Despite his attorneys' claim that he was "borderline mentally handicapped," Brown was sentenced to death. 

According to the Chron, Brown was released from jail in June and his conviction was overturned after a detective came forward with telephone records that could have helped Brown's defense. The Harris County District Attorney's Office dismissed the charges against Brown, finding that there was not enough evidence for a retrial. Now, Brown's attorneys are claiming he is technically an exoneree, which, under a state law passed four years ago, would grant him the right to receive compensation from the state. 

In 2011, state legislators passed the Tim Cole Act, which increased the amount of financial compensation Texas could give to exonerees to $80,000 per year served in prison. The legislation was named after a man in Lubbock who was falsely convicted of rape. In 1999, halfway through a 25-year sentence, Cole died in prison. It was later discovered that the actual rapist had confessed to Lubbock prosecutors four years before Cole's death, but it wasn't until 2008 that DNA evidence cleared Cole and the real rapist was finally convicted.

Cole was exonerated in 2009 and posthumously pardoned a year later by the state of Texas, and his story spurred the state to enact a number of criminal justice reforms, including overhauling eyewitness identification practices. (Cole's case was the subject of a lengthy feature in The New Yorker last month — you can read that here.)

Unlike Tim Cole, Alfred Brown's actual innocence is less clear. No official has ever asserted Brown's innocence, and to this day, the Houston Police Officers' Union apparently still thinks Brown killed Clarke. But according to Brown's attorney, that doesn't really matter; an exoneree is an exoneree. 

"No 'magic words' are required anymore," Brown's lawyer, Neal Manne, told the Chron. "The magic is in the fact that you're released."

Brown's case is an interesting test for this rare progressive criminal justice policy in Texas. Should Texas fork over a couple million dollars in this case, then those in law enforcement who are convinced of Brown's guilt will likely argue that the state is paying a cop killer who got off only on a technicality. But if the state denies Brown's request, it could set a troubling precedent that the wrongfully convicted must be proven — rather than presumed — innocent before they are compensated for their time spent unjustly locked up. It's difficult to see the latter being what legislators had in mind when they passed the Tim Cole Act five years ago.

Whichever way Brown's request goes, the decision could signal just how committed the State of Texas really is to criminal justice reform and righting every wrongful conviction. 
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Leif Reigstad