Anthony Robinson: Released but not relieved

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This is an online-only sidebar to our May 2015 feature, “These JD-carrying exonerees are using their experiences to right wrongs.”

No one helped Anthony Robinson get out of prison in 1997. After he did 10 years of a 27-year sentence in Texas for a rape he didn’t commit, the state paroled him under a mandatory release law to ease overcrowding.

The victim, a white university student, had told police her assailant was an African-American man with a plaid shirt and mustache, and he reeked of cigarette smoke. Just then Robinson came to the university parking lot to pick up a friend’s car. Police nabbed him, taking him straight to scene of the crime for an ID by the victim. She agreed with police suggestions that he was the perpetrator, Robinson says.

Robinson was not a smoker and had no mustache. His plaid shirt and his race were the only similarities.

Robinson was a former Army officer and a college graduate before his arrest at age 26. Once out of prison at age 36, he worked menial jobs for three years, saving enough money to hire a lawyer and pay for DNA testing to prove his innocence. The science wasn’t accepted in Harris County courts at the time of his conviction, but evidence bearing his body’s code had been retained.

He was pardoned in 2000 by then-Gov. George W. Bush and soon was tapped by a prominent Texas legislator as the poster child for legislation to significantly increase monetary compensation for the wrongly convicted.

With encouragement and a boost from a Texas state senator, Robinson got a law degree, learned to speak Mandarin Chinese and then earned a master’s degree in Chinese law at Tsinghua University School of Law in Beijing. He set out as both a lawyer and business consultant based in Houston with toeholds in China.

But the economic straits of recent years, combined with increasing hurdles for solo lawyers in China, have pared the possibilities for him.

A measured and polite man in conversation, Robinson, now 54, has quietly seethed in recent years as Texas’ nation-leading compensation law has ratcheted up to give exonerees exponentially more money than he received in the earlier iteration that was, in a sense, his law. The difference would have been huge in building an ambitious law practice and consultancy after a delayed career start.

Prison Lessons

“Every day you wake up is a blessing, but every day you step out of the cell is a day you can die—even as an innocent bystander,” says Robinson, who spent 3,383 of them amid the ever-present raw justice and crime among inmates.

A prison supervisor—a “free-world” person running the shop where Robinson worked manufacturing state road signs—pulled him aside just months into his sentence and advised him that telling other inmates he was innocent put a bull’s-eye on his back.

The supervisor was a Korean War veteran, and he was helping the former Army officer. By professing innocence, “I was basically telling them I really wasn’t a bad guy, and thus was different from the rest of them,” Robinson says. “So then I said to myself, ‘I’m in here and it’s like being a POW. They’ve got me. Nothing more to it.’ “

The sweetest dream for any inmate, walking free through the prison gates, can also be a severe jolt when it becomes reality. Robinson’s release was harsher in a significant way. He got out for time served and hit the streets as a convicted sex offender. It is a status fraught with limitations and worse—in stark contrast with exoneration.

With less fanfare and many fewer fans, Robinson moved in with an uncle in Houston. Soon a blizzard of postcards to residents in the ZIP code alerted them to his whereabouts and status as a convicted sex offender. Cars would drive by at night and flash lights on the house.

“My uncle suggested I find alternative housing,” Robinson says. “It’s a huge stigma having your personal information on that [sex offender] list.”

Thanks to prison training in electronics tech, Robinson got a temporary job assignment in 1998 doing assembly and quality control with a large computer manufacturing company. He did so well that the line manager told him, in a backhanded compliment, to apply for full time or he’d tell the temp agency not to send him back. Robinson told him there were some issues in his past and the manager said go ahead and apply.

He did, and soon after he was fired. He had been honest on his temp-company application, but the employer misinterpreted a habeas filing Robinson had made from prison and thought he had committed a later, second sex crime.

Robinson then took menial jobs with so little future that the past didn’t matter. For three years he kept a daily log in a small notepad he carried at all times. He would jot down the ID numbers of buses he rode and the drivers’ names. If he bought a soda at a convenience store, he’d ask a clerk to sign a page affirming he’d been there. It was a kind of self-imprisonment.

“It wasn’t therapeutic,” Robinson says. “I went through several pocket tablets to prove my whereabouts.”

Even after he was pardoned, it would be hard to shake caution’s habit.

Then a Witness

His lawyer called out of the blue shortly after the November 2000 pardon, giving Robinson a half-hour’s notice to appear at the office of state Sen. Rodney Ellis, who had read a newspaper story about the exoneration. Ellis wanted to see whether Robinson, without time for coaching by his lawyer, might make a good example and good impression testifying before a legislative committee considering an increase in compensation for the wrongfully convicted.

The African-American legislator had with him a staff lawyer who came over from the Fulbright & Jaworski firm. Robinson acted as if the white woman wasn’t there.

“I tried to put him at ease,” Ellis says, “but he would not look at her. When she said something, he would look at me. I felt awful and said, ‘Hey, brother, you have a problem with women?’ And he said, ‘Well, senator, to be honest I don’t, but I’m reluctant to look at white women I don’t know because I spent 10 years in prison for raping one I’d never seen.”

Ellis soon had Robinson able to make eye contact with a female legislator on the committee whose vote was crucial. And he made a phone call during that first meeting, asking the dean at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University to meet with Robinson and see whether he might make a good law student. Wearing jeans and sneakers, Robinson was whisked by car from one short-notice, high-level meeting to another. Ellis put up $1,000 for an LSAT prep course and it was on.

More Hard Lessons in China

Robinson worked in Beijing during his second summer of law school, and after graduating in 2004 he opened shop there and in Houston as a business consultant and lawyer specializing in matters Sino-American.

But in 2007 Robinson got some barbed lessons on Chinese law when he opened a restaurant in Beijing. He got interested in doing so while in prison getting an associate’s degree in small-business entrepreneurialism. His goal before meeting Ellis had been to buy a McDonald’s franchise.

Lesson one: The statutory 90 days for setting up a business ended up taking 11 months. Robinson and his two business partners—a Chinese national with local contacts and a Taiwanese businessman with whom Robinson was close and who could drum up business—opened Jackie’s, a Roaring ’20s-themed restaurant serving a variety of fare, from American favorites to traditional Chinese dishes.

In four months, the restaurant recovered Robinson’s original investment (he was the sole financial investor), but when he did a surprise audit the following month, there was no money for payroll or invoices. The Chinese national had taken it, saying it was his share of the business.

Lesson two: “In the U.S. that would be called embezzlement,” Robinson says, “but according to Chinese law, as a partner he had every right to the assets.”

Jackie’s folded when Robinson refused to replenish the till. And just then the economies of the U.S. and much of the world tanked.

Robinson has been scratching away at his consultancy and law practice since then, still returning to China every couple of months—and, he says, “getting the occasional good client.” His work includes guidance for Chinese students seeking education in the U.S.

Bad Timing?

Robinson often ponders what might have happened if his pardon had come later.

In 2001, with the help of Robinson’s example, Texas increased the one-time $25,000 payout to the wrongfully convicted to a formula offering $25,000 per year of incarceration, capped at $500,000. In 2009, that was increased to $80,000 per year, plus an annuity based on the lump sum and amortized on life expectancy.

“Texas has the best law on this in the country, by far,” says Rebecca Brown, director of state policy reform for the New York City-based Innocence Project, noting that only 30 states have some sort of compensation law, and several are very limited in substance and scope. “There’s really uneven justice in this country.”

The annuity was retroactive, so Robinson and others exonerated years earlier received it too. But the greatly increased per-year amount was not applied to those who came earlier. And rather than the single lump sum available now, Robinson received his in two payments: $125,000 each year in 2003 and 2004. He also gets an annuity of $4,751.

The two payouts didn’t give him the boost needed after being away from society for a decade. Robinson says he had debts, including from law school, and those debts—combined with the split disbursement—“took away the oomph you get with one lump sum. My dream was to buy a McDonalds, but it wouldn’t be.”

If Robinson were exonerated today after 10 years in prison, he would receive a payment of $875,000: $80,000 per year served, plus $25,000 each for three years on the sex offender list (or on parole), and an annuity, according to the formula used by the Texas comptroller of public accounts.

Had he received the greater amount, Robinson says, he probably would be applying what he learned in that business course in prison: “You don’t make money off burgers; it comes from the fries and sodas.”

“It wouldn’t take that much for the legislature to equalize compensation for those of us who came earlier,” he says. “Some of us have been made more whole than others, and it is a kind of re-victimization.”

Related article:

ABA Journal: “These JD-carrying exonerees are using their experiences to right wrongs”

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