innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Monday, July 31, 2006

Rethinking Restitution in Texas

This article originally ran on Sunday, July 30, 2006 in the Dallas Morning News

By ROBERT THARP
The daily struggles that Greg Wallis faces are typical of the hundreds of people nationwide who have been exonerated through DNA testing and released from prison.
Almost all exhaust their finances in prison fighting to prove their innocence, and many suffer deep family fractures while locked away, according to a survey by the nonprofit Life After Exoneration Program.

Like Mr. Wallis, they enter free society ill equipped to make the transition, the study found.
"They feel like pariahs," said Mr. Wallis' attorney, Jeff Blackburn.
"They've got the normal problems of readjusting on the outside, and nobody wants to listen to their story," said Mr. Blackburn, who directs the Lubbock-based West Texas Innocence Project.

"For people to admit that an innocent person got locked up forces them to ask questions about how just the system is."

Mr. Wallis is the third convict Dallas County whom public defender Michelle Moore has helped to secure DNA tests that exonerated them. The stigma of being accused of such a taboo crime often follows them, she said.

"Employers look at that and say, 'Oh no, he was accused of rape. We're not going to do that,' " she said.

Mr. Blackburn is so confident that Mr. Wallis can successfully make the transition that he's asked him to help lead an effort to reform the way wrongfully convicted Texans are treated.

(The request came months after The Dallas Morning News expressed an interest in telling Mr. Wallis' story.)

Mr. Blackburn envisions having Mr. Wallis tell the story of his wrongful arrest and 18 years spent in prison to lawmakers in the next legislative session. "It's real important that they meet guys who've gotten out," Mr. Blackburn said.

He is asking him to help lobby for changes in the way exonerees are compensated for the time they are locked away. Currently, compensation is taxed heavily. The exonerated also give up their right to sue over their convictions and false imprisonment by accepting restitution.

During a meeting with Mr. Blackburn and Fort Worth attorney Mike Ware in late June, Mr. Wallis agreed to travel to Austin next month and tell his story at the first-ever statewide gathering of lawyers, investigators and law students who work on wrongful conviction cases.

"I think he's one of the few who's got the strength of character to get him through," Mr. Blackburn said. "At the same time, with him, this is a real classic example – this is a guy who's not working, can't afford a car, who's in terrible shape all because of what the government did to him."

Mr. Blackburn is also planning to ask hard questions of Irving police, starting with why Mr. Wallis was arrested and what is being done to find the real rapist.

"The problem is, it's not good enough to say it was a gross horrible injustice," he said.
E-mail rtharp@dallasnews.com

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