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Spence v. State

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

April 26, 2019

Jason Spence, Individually and as Heir and Representative of the Estate of David Spence, Deceased; Joel Spence, Individually and as Heir and Representative of the Estate of David Spence, Deceased; and Estate of Anthony Melendez, Appellants
v.
State of Texas, Appellee

          FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF TRAVIS COUNTY, 345TH JUDICIAL DISTRICT NO. D-1-GN-17-001735, HONORABLE KARIN CRUMP, JUDGE PRESIDING

          Before Chief Justice Rose, Justices Goodwin and Kelly.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Melissa Goodwin, Justice.

         Appellants Jason Spence and Joel Spence, Individually and as Heirs and Representatives of the Estate of David Spence, Deceased, and the Estate of Anthony Melendez sought damages against the State and declaratory, injunctive, and equitable relief stemming from the alleged wrongful conviction, imprisonment, and deaths of David Spence and Anthony Melendez. Appellants raise five issues on appeal from the trial court's order granting a motion to dismiss by the State of Texas based on sovereign immunity pursuant to Rule 91a. See Tex R. Civ. P. 91a. For the following reasons, we affirm the trial court's order.

         Background

         Compensation for Wrongful Imprisonment in Texas

         To give context to appellants' asserted claims against the State, we begin with a brief discussion of Chapter 103 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, which prescribes an administrative procedure for a claimant to obtain compensation for wrongful imprisonment in Texas. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 103.001-.154; Ex parte Springsteen, 506 S.W.3d 789, 790-94 (Tex. App.-Austin 2016, pet. denied) (providing discussion of application process and requirements to obtain compensation under Chapter 103 for wrongful imprisonment). In general, the claimant files an application for compensation with the Comptroller. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 103.051. If the Comptroller denies the application, "the claimant may bring an application for mandamus relief." See id. § 103.051(d). The application for mandamus relief "must be filed in the Texas Supreme Court, as only that court has jurisdiction to issue the writ against the Comptroller." Ex parte Springsteen, 506 S.W.3d at 794 (citing, among other authority, Tex. Gov't Code § 22.002(c)).

         As a threshold matter, a complaint must satisfy one of the alternatives set forth in Section 103.001(a) to be entitled to compensation for wrongful imprisonment in Texas. That section provides:

(a) A person is entitled to compensation if:
(1) the person has served in whole or in part a sentence in prison under the laws of this state; and
(2) the person:
(A) has received a full pardon on the basis of innocence for the crime for which the person was sentenced;
(B) has been granted relief in accordance with a writ of habeas corpus that is based on a court finding or determination that the person is actually innocent of the crime for which the person was sentenced; or
(C) has been granted relief in accordance with a writ of habeas corpus and:
(i) the state district court in which the charge against the person was pending has entered an order dismissing the charge; and
(ii) the district court's dismissal order is based on a motion to dismiss in which the state's attorney states that no credible evidence exists that inculpates the defendant and, either in the motion or in an affidavit, the state's attorney states that the state's attorney believes that the defendant is actually innocent of the crime for which the person was sentenced.

Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 103.001(a). Relevant to this appeal, a claimant's entitlement to compensation under this section requires a determination of innocence. See id. Also relevant here, section 103.001(c) allows recovery for a person's heirs, legal representative, and estate as follows:

(c) If a deceased person would be entitled to compensation under Subsection (a)(2) if living, including a person who received a posthumous pardon, the person's heirs, legal representative, and estate are entitled to lump-sum compensation under Section 103.052.

Id. § 103.001(c). With this statutorily prescribed administrative procedure in mind, we turn to appellants' asserted claims against the State that stem from their allegations of the wrongful conviction, imprisonment, and deaths of David Spence and Anthony Melendez.

         Appellants' Claims Against the State

         Jason Spence and Joel Spence are the sons of David Spence.[1] In 1990, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed Spence's 1984 capital murder conviction and death sentence for his involvement in the murder of Jill Montgomery. See generally Spence v. State, 795 S.W.2d 743 (Tex. Crim. App. 1990), cert. denied, 499 U.S. 932 (1991). On the same day, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in an unpublished opinion affirmed Spence's capital murder conviction and death sentence for his involvement in the murder of Kenneth Franks. See id. at 746 n.1. Spence thereafter unsuccessfully filed applications for state and federal writs of habeas corpus regarding the convictions and death sentences. See generally Spence v. Johnson, 80 F.3d 989 (5th Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 519 U.S. 1012 (1996) (detailing factual background of murders, Spence's convictions, and his various applications for habeas corpus relief that were filed in state and federal courts, which were all denied). Spence was executed by lethal injection in 1997.

         Anthony Melendez pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and received two life sentences for his involvement in the murders of Montgomery and Franks. He remained in prison until he died in January 2017.

         Appellants filed suit against the State on April 19, 2017, seeking declaratory relief under the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act (UDJA) based on the alleged wrongful convictions, imprisonment, and deaths of Spence and Melendez. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code §§ 37.001-.011. Appellants asserted that Spence and Melendez were innocent and did not commit the murders, and they sought declaratory relief that they "were entitled to Writ of Habeas Corpus relief and compensation under Chapter 103 for the time that [Spence and Melendez] were wrongfully imprisoned." See id. ยง 103.001 (generally entitling claimant to compensation based on determination that claimant was "actually innocent" of crime for which he was sentenced). They requested that the trial court "utilize the powers granted it under the Declaratory Judgment[s] Act and determine the facts underlying this cause" and "declare that David Spence and ...


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