Judge Says Ex-Wife of Exoneree Steven Phillips Entitled to a Portion of His Millions

Categories: Legal Battles

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Photo by Danny Fulgencio
It was a question the legal system had never faced before: If the state pays a man millions of dollars for locking him up for a crime he didn't commit, does the wife he left behind get a piece of that? There was no need for an answer before the passage of the Tim Cole Act in 2009, which awards the wrongfully imprisoned some $160,000 for each year spent behind bars.

But according to Judge Lori Hockett's ruling Tuesday in family court, the answer is, for now at least, yes.

Back in the 1980s, Steven Phillips was convicted of a string of Dallas rapes. He left behind his new wife, Traci Tucker, who was pregnant with his child. After ten years of marriage, they divorced. Phillips says they drifted apart, and that she stopped coming to visit him after the first three years. Tucker's lawyers have said she supported him throughout their marriage, and that he pushed her away. Meanwhile, she raised their son on her own. Twenty-seven years later, Phillips was exonerated on DNA evidence. Under the Tim Cole Act, the state owed him $4-$6 million, half payable immediately in a lump sum, the other half doled out in an annuity for the rest of his life.

The state compensated Tucker for the back child support, but she sued Phillips in 2010 to get a cut of his award. Her attorneys say the payments are fair game because they partially compensate for lost wages. Phillips' attorneys say the award has nothing to do with lost wages, because each exoneree gets compensated at the same rate, no matter their earning power before they got locked up.

In fact, Sen. Rodney Ellis, one of the bill's architects, said in an affidavit that the state legislature never intended to compensate exonerees for lost wages; otherwise it would have been based on their income. It was a way to keep the payments tax-exempt. As for the bereft families, the legislature, Ellis said, recognized that an imprisoned man can't care for his wife and kids. "That is why we drafted the compensation statute to include any child support payments and interest on child support arrearage that are owed by the exoneree," he wrote. (Judge Hockett wouldn't allow the affidavit into evidence)

Nevertheless, the judge awarded Tucker $114,000, calculated by splitting the amount Phillips would have earned during their marriage as a roofing contractor.

"Justice required there be some acknowledgement and compensation for these wives, who have also suffered immeasurably under economic hardship and stigma, and raised the children and visited and supported the man during trial and his incarceration," says Houston attorney Jerry Patchen, Tucker's attorney

Randy Turner, Phillips' attorney, says he's confident the ruling won't stand. "This will be a short-lived victory. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind it will be reversed by the
Dallas Court of Appeals," he says. "Problem is, we have a trial judge who unfortunately didn't understand the law. I don't blame her. She's a family law judge and doesn't deal with things like this."

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Even looking at the comments here, society seems to think that men are there to be exploited by women.

You can't change that. What you can change, as a man, is to ... not ... get ... married.

Many men are waking up to this, so there are now pushes in Canada, England and even parts of the United States to now go after men who just live with women. You are going to pay.

Still - Don't Get Married.


Thank you for posting this. This is exactly where our legal system get sticky and that you need an expert in family law in Minneapolis to actually sort things out for you like the ones here www.wi-attorneys.com


This seems like an area of the law that needs sorting out, either by the courts or the legislature. The increasing number of exonerations, coupled with what I imagine is a high divorce rate among people with long prison sentences, leads me to believe that this won't be the last time it comes up. 



Even allowing for 33% attorney fees*, and assuming his compensation was at the low end of the range cited, this is only about 4% of his award -- for the woman who raised his child. I can't fathom this man's suffering, but nor can I fathom begrudging his kid's mom such a token amount.



* I'm guessing here, but that should be in the ballpark. 

ScottsMerkin topcommenter

I really dont have an opinion on this but they were both obviously wronged by the system and for that no amount of money makes it right.  As for her, my parents always told me, "It never hurts to ask"  It seems as if that is what she is doing

holmantx topcommenter

Tough call.  A life in the penitentiary then released produces a man in his fifties with no experience to generate income.  Much less the reality of 27 years of incarceration, removed from life itself, for a crime he did not commit.  He suffered by far the most while she went on with her life.  She limped on, he was destroyed.


Maybe she should be means-tested to measure the extent of the harm done to her.


Had he not been exonerated, she would still be on the outside.


 @holmantx Criminals are generally held liable for the collateral damage of their crimes when there is a causal relationship that can be established. Having your husband accused of multiple rapes he did not commit, imprisoned, and then having to raise his child more or less as a single parent is pretty much all a result of the state's negligence. 


 @ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul Goes to show what I know -- that was probably in the linked article. What bloodsuckers.


So make it 8%. Still a relative pittance -- enough so for me to wonder if this is about the money, or is it because he (perhaps justifiably) hates the woman. In either case, I believe she's entitled to the 114K. 

holmantx topcommenter

 @anon then maybe she should be made whole by the state (to the extent she can be) separate and apart from his award.

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