What does Texas owe the family of a dead man who spent 26 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit? | Social Justice
Close Staff Photographer What does Texas owe the family of a dead man who spent 26 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit? Filed under Social Justice at Yesterday Get Get Unlimited Digital Access Your first month is less than a dollar. $0.99 for first 4 weeks Subscribe Now
Sherita Lindsey sat next to her late husband, Johnnie , on the four-poster bed they shared after he was released from prison where he served 26 years for a crime he didn’t commit.
He had died two hours earlier from liver cancer . As Sherita, 49, waited for the funeral home that day in February, a phone call from her son delivered another blow.
“Mama, I have cancer,” Robert Sasser cried into the phone. “I’m scared. I don’t know what to do.” Johnnie Lindsey, who spent 26 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, shared a moment with his wife, Sherita, at their home in Dallas on Jan. 24. (Rose Baca/Staff Photographer)
Johnnie had nearly a decade of freedom before having to confront cancer and costly medical bills. Compounding his family’s pain was that Texas’ compensation payments to Johnnie since his release — essentially a damage award for robbing him of his freedom — stopped when he died.
State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, calls their predicament a troubling shortcoming in the state’s wrongful conviction compensation law. Exonerees have one chance to designate a portion of their compensation for spouses and children. If they opt in, a portion of their monthly stipend is deducted while they are living and then paid to beneficiaries after exonerees die. Texas state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas
Johnnie did not opt in to the deferred payments, but instead chose to take the full payouts while alive. His death left his family in limbo. They depended on his stipend to pay for health care and household expenses — and they could have used it to pay for his funeral and medical bills.
Johnnie’s deathbed wish was for a change in the law so exonerees’ loved ones can continue to receive money if their lives are cut short, said Anchia, who has championed compensation laws for the wrongfully convicted.
“Before he passed away, I committed to Johnnie that I would do that,’’ said Anchia, who visited Johnnie in his final days at his South Dallas home.
Anchia said he’s unsure if the Legislature will be interested in doing more than allowing exonerees another opportunity to sign up. He said he worries some lawmakers will think the state has already done enough for those sent to prison for crimes they didn’t commit. He plans to “take the temperature” for further change. Sherita Lindsey has a moment with her son Robert Sasser while he receives chemotherapy treatment at Texas Oncology-Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center in Dallas. (Rose Baca/Staff Photographer) How compensation works
Texas provides greater compensation to the wrongly convicted than most other states, paying them a lump sum of $80,000 for every year behind bars, as well as monthly payments that range from less than $1,000 a month to just over $15,000, depending on time served and their life expectancy.
Texas doesn’t cap compensation for exonerees, but only over the last decade have lawmakers focused on helping their survivors.
In 2009, the state allowed families of prisoners who were exonerated after their death to receive compensation. In 2015, Texas changed the law giving living exonerees the option to defer a portion of their monthly payments so that their family members can receive it after they die.
But that was their only shot at the opportunity.
Of nearly 100 Texas exonerees, only one signed up after being notified by mail, according to the Texas comptroller’s office. Dallas County exoneree Richard Miles, his wife LaToya Miles and their 3-year-old daughter, Raelyn. (Richard Miles)
Another Dallas exoneree, Richard Miles, has a 3-year-old daughter, Raelyn. He spent 15 years in prison for a murder committed by someone else. He uses part of his compensation to run his nonprofit, Miles of Freedom, which helps those leaving prison find jobs and a place to live.
But he wants to make sure Raelyn and his wife, LaToya, are cared for if he dies unexpectedly. His life insurance policy alone won’t be enough, but he didn’t defer a portion of his compensation.
“We’re not asking for more than you planned to give,’’ Miles said. “If you are planning to compensate me for 20 years, if I die in five, can I leave the other 15 to my daughter or my wife?” Billy Smith, who received a life sentence in 1987, spent nearly 20 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit and was released in 2006. Smith passed away in 2017. Kaye Smith, Billy’s wife, was photographed in the Glenn Heights home she bought with Billy. She may have to sell the home to make ends meet. Before he died, he asked her not to get rid of the house. (Andy Jacobsohn/Staff Photographer) ‘If I had known …’
Like Johnnie, another Dallas County exoneree, Billy Smith , died wishing he had delayed some compensation for his wife.
Set free in 2006, Billy filed a lawsuit against authorities for damages before Texas changed the law to improve how it compensates the wrongly convicted. Texas eventually gave Billy a lump sum of almost $1.6 million after he wrongly spent two decades in prison. But Billy, who was wrongly convicted of sexual assault, got $500,000 of that and his lawyer got the rest, his wife, Kaye, said.
Billy was getting a monthly check for nearly $10,000 when he died in March 2017, a month after doctors discovered his lung cancer.
His wife, Kaye, has struggled emotionally and financially since his death.
Kaye, 66, said he told her before dying that “if I’d known, I would have taken the pay cut.” Johnnie Lindsey left the 292nd District Court a free man on Sept. 12, 2008, in Dallas. Lindsey, who died in February, spent 26 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. (File Photo/Staff) Legislative action
Now, only new exonerees can defer payments. The best path for a quick change, Anchia said, is for the Legislature to allow exonerees to sign up again.
Anchia, an author of the original bill, said he will likely file a bill in the next session, which starts in January, to do just that. In the past, the decision to delay payment was made by sending paperwork through the mail. In the future, Anchia said, exonerees should be required to meet with someone in person to help them make financial decisions.
That won’t help Sherita and Kaye. But other exonerees know how Sherita and Kaye struggled, Anchia said. That could make them act. Ann Coulter says doctors should butt out of gun debate. A Dallas SWAT surgeon has some feelings about that
Michelle Moore, a Texas attorney who has helped free nine wrongly convicted men, including Johnnie, thinks it makes sense to continue compensating spouses after exonerees die. The wives, she said, either stuck with them through prison or helped pick up the pieces afterward.
Being married to an exoneree isn’t easy, said Moore, a past president of the Innocence Project of Texas. They often suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and other difficulties that undermine their coping skills. The former prisoners are used to guards making decisions for them.
With compensation, “you’re trying to put the person back where they would have been had they not wrongfully gone to jail,” she said. “You’re not just righting the wrong against the person who went to jail.” Sandra and Johnny Pinchback (Sandra and Johnny Pinchback)
Johnny and Sandra Pinchback married 26 years ago while he was in prison. They met when their parents lived on the same Dallas street. The Pinchbacks, who live in Dallas, were just friends when he went to prison for the 1984 rapes of two teens that DNA tests later proved were committed by someone else. Sandra always believed in his innocence.
They went to marriage seminars together in prison with the chaplain. The minister “always said ‘you’re doing their time with them.”
If it applied then, it applies now, Sandra said. The state should simply pay families half the monthly compensation if the exoneree dies, she said. Priorities
Johnnie, who was wrongly convicted of sexual assault, died with no health insurance and not much money, despite a $1.8 million lump sum payment and a $11,000 a month, Sherita said. He spent a lot before he met Sherita.
He bought a house and furnished it, helped buy instruments for a music school and gave some money to his adult children. He bought his daughter a wedding dress. He also spent his own money to investigate other possible wrongful convictions with two other exonerees. Their work was the subject of a documentary film and a scripted television show was in development at CBS. Michelle Moore (right), the attorney who helped to exonerate Johnnie Lindsey (left), a Texas exoneree who spent 26 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, shares a moment with him at his home in Dallas just days before he died in February. (Rose Baca/Staff Photographer)
For Sherita, her son’s health and medical treatments take precedence over her uncertain financial future. Soon, she knows she’ll have to find a job. She investigated insurance claims before she met Johnnie.
Robert’s outlook is better than Johnnie’s. Robert worked at a high-end steakhouse before he got sick and isn’t quite healthy enough to return.
Johnnie’s will is still tied up in probate court. He left everything to her. She’s planning to sell his beloved baby grand piano to pay the bills. A GoFundMe account set up by a friend raised a little over $2,000 — well short of the $50,000 goal. Dallas jailers ordered transgender woman to show her genitals, lawsuit says
Sherita knows she might have to put their house on the market. They started most mornings sipping coffee in the backyard they landscaped together. As Johnnie got sicker , he’d ask Sherita to open the blinds in their bedroom so he could look out back to see the sunshine or the rain.
“Sometimes, I feel like he might walk through the door and say, ‘Hey, honey bunny,’” Sherita said, sitting on the living room couch with their chihuahua Cisco curled up beside her. “And I’ll say, ‘hey, honey bunny.’”