DALLAS — Thomas McGowan's journey from prison to prosperity is about to culminate in $1.8 million, and he knows just how to spend it: on a house with three bedrooms, stainless steel kitchen appliances and a washer and dryer.
"I'll let my girlfriend pick out the rest," said McGowan, who was exonerated last year based on DNA evidence after spending nearly 23 years in prison for rape and robbery.
He and other exonerees in Texas, which leads the nation in freeing the wrongly convicted, soon will become instant millionaires under a new state law that took effect this week.
Exonerees will get $80,000 for each year they spent behind bars. The compensation also includes lifetime annuity payments that for most of the wrongly convicted are worth between $40,000 and $50,000 a year — making it by far the nation's most generous package.
"I'm nervous and excited," said McGowan, 50. "It's something I never had, this amount of money. I didn't have any money — period."
His payday for his imprisonment — a time he described as "a nightmare," "hell" and "slavery" — should come by mid-November after the state's 45-day processing period.
Exonerees also receive an array of social services, including job training, tuition credits and access to medical and dental treatment. Though 27 other states have some form of compensation law for the wrongly convicted, none comes close to offering the social services and money Texas provides.
Financial advisers available
The annuity payments are especially popular among exonerees, who acknowledge their lack of experience in managing personal finances. A social worker who meets with the exonerees is setting them up with financial advisers and has led discussions alerting them to swindlers.
The annuities are "a way to guarantee these guys ... payments for life as long as they follow the law," said Kevin Glasheen, a Lubbock attorney representing a dozen exonerees.
Two who served about 26 years in prison for rape will receive lump sums of about $2 million apiece. Another, Steven Phillips, who spent about 24 years in prison for sexual assault and burglary, will get about $1.9 million.
The biggest compensation package will likely go to James Woodard, who spent more than 27 years in prison for a 1980 murder that DNA testing later showed he did not commit. He eventually could receive nearly $2.2 million but first needs a writ from the state's Court of Criminal Appeals or a pardon from the governor.
McGowan and the others are among 38 DNA exonerees in Texas, according to the Innocence Project, a New York legal center that specializes in overturning wrongful convictions. Dallas County alone has 21 cases in which a judge overturned guilty verdicts based on DNA evidence, though prosecutors plan to retry one of those.
Charles Chatman, who was wrongly convicted of rape, said the money will allow him some peace of mind after more than 26 years in prison.
"It will bring me some independence," he said. "Other people have had a lot of control over my life."
From new businesses to new babies
Chatman and other exonerees already have begun rebuilding their lives. Several plan to start businesses, saying they don't mind working but want to be their own bosses. Others, such as McGowan, don't intend to work and hope to make their money last a lifetime.
Some exonerees have gotten married and another is about to. Phillips is taking college courses. Chatman became a first-time father at 49.
"That's something I never thought I'd be able to do," he said. "No amount of money can replace the time we've lost."
College tuition covered
The drumbeat of DNA exonerations caused lawmakers this year to increase the compensation for the wrongly convicted, which had been $50,000 for each year of prison. Glasheen, the attorney, advised his clients to drop their federal civil rights lawsuits and then led the lobbying efforts for the bill.
Besides the lump sum and the monthly annuity payments, the bill includes 120 hours of paid tuition at a public college. It also gives exonerees an additional $25,000 for each year they spent on parole or as registered sex offenders.
No other state has such a provision, according to the Innocence Project.
Exonerees who collected lump sum payments under the old compensation law are ineligible for the new lump sums but will receive the annuities. Whether the money will be subject to taxes remains unsettled, Glasheen said.
The monthly payments are expected to be a lifeline for exonerees such as Wiley Fountain, 53, who received nearly $390,000 in compensation — minus federal taxes — but squandered it by, as he said, "living large." He ended up homeless, spending his nights in a tattered sleeping bag behind a liquor store.
But after getting help from fellow exonerees and social workers, Fountain now lives in an apartment and soon will have a steady income.
‘You might be able to live a normal life’
Fountain's story is a cautionary tale for the other exonerees, who meet monthly and lately have been discussing the baggage that comes with the money.
Chatman said he's been approached by "family, friends and strangers, too."
"It takes two or three seconds before they ask me how much money, or when do I get the money," he said. "Everyone has the perfect business venture for you."
Though appropriately wary, the exonerees say they are excited about having money in the bank.
"You're locked up so long and then you get out with nothing," McGowan said. "With this, you might be able to live a normal life, knowing you don't have to worry about being out on the streets."
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