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Thurgood Marshall School of Law student Anthony Robinson never wanted to be a “poster child” — he just wanted to clear his name. Robinson, who completed his first year of law school on May 10, spent nearly a decade behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. His hellish experience ultimately brought him to the attention of a handful of powerful players in the Texas legal community. With their help, Robinson went from inmate to law student in less than five years. About a year-and-a-half ago, state Sen. Rodney G. Ellis, D-Houston, read that a Midwestern state had increased the compensation it paid to persons wrongly convicted of a crime. Ellis took note. “This issue had not even been on my radar screen,” recalls Ellis, who has long advocated reforms related to indigent defense, DNA testing, hate crimes and racial profiling. However, a spate of wrongful-imprisonment cases — A.B. Butler, Roy Criner, Kevin Byrd, Carlos Laverina, Christopher Ochoa and David Pope, each of whom had served at least a decade in jail before being exonerated — highlighted the drastic need for reform, Ellis says. What the senator learned about compensation in Texas disturbed him. Since 1965, persons wrongfully convicted were entitled to maximum compensation of $25,000 for physical and mental pain and suffering and a possible $25,000 for medical expenses — regardless of time served. Ellis instructed his staff to work on a progressive compensation proposal for the 2001 legislative session that would enable the wrongfully imprisoned to financially resurrect their disrupted lives. The result was S.B. 536, which Ellis filed on Feb. 5, 2001. But how could Ellis convince others that Texas’ present scheme was woefully inadequate? Enter Robinson, a Houston man who served time in prison for a rape he did not commit. “I saw an article in the paper about Anthony Robinson,” Ellis says. “I called his lawyer, Randy Schaffer of Houston, [and said], ‘I’m trying to get this bill passed, and I need to try to put a face on this problem. I need a poster child for criminal justice reform.’ And Schaffer said, ‘Senator, the guy is amazing.’ “ WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME Robinson arrived in Houston in late 1985 as a 26-year-old college graduate, having completed two years in the U.S. Army. Optimistic about his future, he accepted a job to help an automotive parts chain open in the Houston market. His plan, ultimately, was to return to school, perhaps even attend law school. However, while at the University of Houston in January 1986 to pick up a friend’s car for repair, campus police seized Robinson. “I thought to myself, ‘OK, this is a normal hassle for a black guy,’ Robinson recalls. “You get used to it. I thought, ‘I haven’t done anything wrong, so I won’t have any problems.’ But it didn’t work out that way.” Robinson was arrested. A female student had been raped by a black male; Robinson was on campus at the time. Although the evidence was not there — Robinson says fingerprints taken from the crime scene did not match his, nor did he match the victim’s initial description of the attacker — the jury found him guilty. Convicted through faulty eyewitness testimony by the rape victim, Robinson says his pleas of innocence during the trial and while in prison fell on deaf ears. Robinson was initially represented by a court-appointed attorney whom Robinson says he dismissed when it became apparent to him that the lawyer didn’t believe in his innocence. Robinson next hired an attorney, spending “every penny” he’d ever saved. “I was emphatic that he needed to get the evidence tested, otherwise there was no way to say I didn’t do it,” Robinson says. However, he believes crucial evidence was overlooked. A third lawyer, who represented Robinson on an appeal that was denied in 1992, also fell short of Robinson’s expectations. “I think the representation I received prior to Randy Schaffer was less than diligent,” Robinson believes. “The attorneys weren’t willing to look for the details and look at the evidence. Truth was not an objective for them,” Robinson alleges. Southern District Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Davis, who, as a Harris County assistant DA, prosecuted Robinson, says he can understand how Robinson would feel that way. “I think anybody would. The way the case turned out, it was basically a one-on-one crime. The complainant, the lady who was assaulted, was just a dream witness … very attractive, very intelligent, well-spoken, [and] throughout the trial and before [the trial] she never wavered on her identification of Robinson as being the person who committed the crime.” Basically the case boiled down to whether the jury was going to believe the victim or Robinson, Davis says. They believed the victim. “Frankly, it would have been hard not to believe her,” he says. “She just made an honest mistake.” Moreover, Davis adds, at the time, DNA evidence was virtually non-existent. “If we’d had it, we would have used it.” IN HELL Robinson does not like to dwell on the details of his incarceration and says he witnessed and experienced things he doesn’t want to talk about. But he remembers the routine all too well. A typical day consisted of a 3 a.m. wake-up call, followed by breakfast. He returned to his cell at 4:30 a.m. He reported for work from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. “Work” entailed such tasks as picking potatoes, okra and carrots in fields owned by the prison or trimming overgrowth on the grounds. He also labored in the prison laundry and did industrial work, such as making signs and license plates. Each time prisoners returned to the housing unit after work, they were strip-searched en masse, Robinson says. After lunch and an hour in the cell block, prisoners returned to work from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Dinner was from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. Lights out was at 10:30 p.m. That was his life every day for 10 years, Robinson says. While in prison, Robinson says he thought often about such issues as DNA testing, compensation for the wrongly convicted and representation of the indigent. In fact, he says, he spent three or four hours each evening in the prison’s law library, trying to devise a strategy to prove his innocence. “When I first got there, I was living in the delusion that at some point they were going to walk over to me and say, ‘Robinson, they made a big mistake. You’re out of here,’” he says. No such luck. By November 1996, after serving nine years and 10 months of a 27-year sentence, Robinson was paroled. “The law [trying to curb overcrowding in Texas prisons] that was in effect when I was sentenced required the state to release me,” Robinson says. “There was no compassionate parole board or intervening force. The law just kicked in and said, ‘You have to let this guy go.’” FINDING AN ATTORNEY As a condition of parole, Robinson was required to go to Houston, where he was placed in a halfway house until he could either support himself or find adequate housing. He also was required to attend weekly counseling sessions with rapists and child molesters. He took a low-paying job and tried to earn the money to get a DNA test and a lawyer. After approaching a dozen attorneys who turned him down when he asked them to represent him on a contingent-fee basis, Robinson says someone suggested he call Schaffer, who had been successful with DNA appeals. After talking with Robinson, Schaffer agreed to help with his case if he signed a contract for payment. “That was probably the most positive sign that I had received from anybody,” says Robinson, who declines to discuss his fee arrangement with Schaffer. “He was willing to accept my signature as a binding agreement. I started a payment plan. I started counting my pennies. That [earning money] was my sole motivation every morning when I woke up.” Robinson worked a series of menial jobs for three years to scrape together enough money — roughly $1,800 — for the DNA test that eventually exonerated him. The test that proved he was not guilty had not gained courtroom acceptance when Robinson was tried in 1987. Schaffer says he was persuaded by Robinson’s sincere demeanor. “For a guy to come in and put money on the table for an investigation and DNA testing, that’s a pretty good step in the direction of convincing me that he’s probably innocent,” he says. “It’s not like [Robinson] was still in prison and was looking at staying there forever unless exonerated … If in fact he had committed the crime, he had nothing to gain by spending the money for the testing, and he had money to lose that obviously he didn’t have.” Robinson says after he raised the $1,800, Schaffer filed an application for a writ of habeas corpus to obtain trial court jurisdiction, which got the ball rolling so that they could get the authorization for DNA testing. “So the evidence went off and was tested, and he was exonerated,” says Schaffer. Shortly thereafter, Robinson applied to the Texas Parole Board for a state pardon from then-Gov. George W. Bush. In late 2000, Robinson received a full pardon “based on innocence and restoration of full civil rights of citizenship that may have heretofore been lost.” Judge Elsa Alcala of Harris County’s 338th District Court, who signed the order declaring Robinson innocent after the DNA test, says that the criminal system is trying to catch up with the technology. “Today you see all of this stuff being analyzed where 20 years ago, it didn’t exist.” But, acknowledges Alcala, compensating someone for mistakes such as the one that got Robinson locked up is difficult. “Even if you give them a lot of money, it doesn’t compensate for what was taken,” she says. “It’s a tragedy. You don’t want to see any cases like that.” With his decade-long ordeal behind him, Robinson got busy making up for lost time by giving back to society. At Ellis’ request, Robinson testified before the Senate Committee and the House Committee regarding the Compensation to Persons Wrongfully Imprisoned Bill. The law, which went into effect on June 17, 2001, amends Chapter 103 of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code. It allows those wrongfully imprisoned to receive $25,000 for each year spent in prison. The maximum a wrongfully imprisoned Texan can recover is $500,000 if the time served is 20 years or more, up from the prior law’s $50,000 cap. Those owed $50,000 or more are paid in two equal, annual installments. Compensation payments terminate if the person is “convicted of a crime punishable as a felony.” Payments also terminate if the claimant dies, so a surviving spouse and/or heirs do not inherit the unpaid compensation. Kenneth Besserman, Sen. Ellis’ general counsel and legislative director, says that, based on information he received from the Comptroller of Public Accounts Office, as of Jan. 1, 2002, a total of $1,066,666.56 in compensation has been approved, of which approximately one-half has been paid in varying amounts to wrongfully convicted individuals who qualify. Robinson is one of a number of individuals who will be compensated under the new scheme. “The legislation would not have passed had we not had a poster child for reform whose testimony was bulletproof,” Ellis says of Robinson. “He’s a remarkable human being. A very forgiving individual, and what amazes me most about him is he’s not bitter after having gone through all of that.” LIVING HIS DREAM But Ellis’ interest in Robinson did not stop with passage of the compensation legislation. When Ellis learned that Robinson had entertained thoughts of becoming a lawyer before his arrest, Ellis called John Brittain, dean of Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law, and asked him to meet with Robinson to discuss the school’s entrance criteria. Ellis recalls telling Brittain to be honest with Robinson about his chances for admission. Brittain was impressed, but Robinson’s chances ultimately depended on his LSAT scores. Ellis, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and managing director and co-founder of Apex Securities, an investment banking firm, says he paid for Robinson to take an LSAT review course. Robinson did well and was accepted by Thurgood Marshall. Ellis also hosted an event last summer to raise enough money so that Robinson could attend law school without worrying about tuition. Members of the state Senate, various attorneys and others gave generously. Houston attorney Joseph Jamail, who donated $30,000 to Robinson’s scholarship, says, “It was a pleasure to be able to help.” Brittain says tuition, books and other expenses at Thurgood Marshall cost about $15,000 a year; roughly $45,000 has been raised to help Robinson defray costs, Brittain says. In many ways, Robinson, now 41, is just another law student juggling a challenging course load and casebooks. In fact, until a recently published school newspaper article revealed his story, most classmates and professors didn’t know of the circuitous route Robinson took to get to law school. Robinson’s civil procedure professor, Marcia Johnson, says she was “flabbergasted” to learn how he’d spent the past 13 years. “He is such a gentleman. He really is a joy to have in class,” she says of Robinson. “He’s prepared, he’s never overbearing, but always participates. He’s someone I can rely on to bring a lot to the debate.” Brittain views Robinson’s attendance at the law school as an opportunity to “correct an injustice and give someone a chance to reach his fullest potential.” From the dean’s standpoint, Robinson made a smooth transition and is in a position to contribute great insight to classmates about some of the harsh inequities of the criminal justice system involving the selection and presentation of evidence, unsubstantiated charges and the advancement of technology. “Here was a man who survived 10 hard years in prison and saw some things he tells me he wouldn’t even want to repeat,” says Brittain. “And yet he comes out with compassion for the law, but firm and clear on its limitations and unfairness.” With first-year exams behind him, Robinson is looking forward to the summer, during which he will attend classes at Renmin (People’s) University of China in Beijing, studying comparative American and Chinese legal systems. Several of the courses will deal with trade issues, including foreign trade with China, foreign investment and joint ventures in China, and Chinese tax law relating to foreign trade and investment. Indiana University School of Law sponsors the program. After his return, Robinson will continue to work at his year-round job as a field support technician for a Houston-based company and plans to do some volunteer work with Houston-area youngsters. Then it’s on to his second year of law school. Although he has two years to go until graduation, Robinson already is planning his future. Initially, he wants to practice corporate and international law until he obtains a measure of economic security for his family. Robinson has been married since 1998. Someday, however, he envisions grappling with some of the criminal justice and civil rights issues that plagued his life — but as a lawyer rather than the accused. “The most pitiful thing is to have a dream and never live it,” says Robinson. “You need to do whatever you can do so there are no missed opportunities.”

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