Exonerated Texas prisoners set to make millions

Whatever you do, don't call it easy money. Newly freed prisoners in Texas are being compensated richly for their travails, thanks to a new law in the state, which leads the nation in freeing wrongly-convicted inmates.

Under the new law, which took effect this week, Texas exonerees will receive $80,000 for each year spent behind bars, in addition to lifetime annuity payments of between $40,000 and $50,000 a year. The program also includes free tuition for up to 120 hours of study at public college and $25,000 for every year spent on parole or as a registered sex offender. Medical and dental treatment, job training and other social services are offered, as well.

The Texas package is the most generous in the nation. Twenty-seven other states have compensation and social service schemes for the wrongly convicted, but they do not come close to matching the depth and breadth of this new measure.

Previously, the program did little to prepare inmates for life on the outside with many exonerees left unable to manage the lump sum effectively.

Wiley Fountain, for example, was paid $390,000 under the earlier Texas law, but he spent most of it frivolously, eventually becoming homeless. The new program's annuity payments, he says, are likely to prevent this problem. The steady income should help its beneficiaries to adapt to a normal life. Social workers are putting recipients in touch with financial advisers to help them adjust to the new income, as well. Already, they are discussing the possibility of scam artists and friends and family who show up with their hands out.

The sizable payments are expected to help the exonerees begin their lives anew. According to an Associated Press report, several are planning to start new businesses. School, marriage and fatherhood are on the list, too. One, Charles Chatman, doesn't plan to work: he just wants to make his money last for the rest of his life.

Though the law just took effect, some of the money is already being spent. Two prisoners, who spent more than 25 years in prison for rape, will be paid lump sums of approximately $2 million each. Another, with 24 years behind bars for sexual assault and burglary, is set to be given around $1.9 million. James Woodard, however, is likely to receive the largest package. His 27 years in prison – on a 1980 murder conviction – could result in a $2.2 million payday (plus the other benefits), if he receives either a writ from the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals or a pardon from the governor. DNA testing has demonstrated that Woodard did not commit the crime.

In total, DNA testing has exonerated 38 inmates in Texas, according to the Innocence Project. Twenty-one of them are in Dallas County, though prosecutors intend to retry one of them.

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