Man Exonerated in Rape Case Awarded Compensation

An Oklahoma man who was exonerated of rape after spending 13 years in prison is receiving compensation from the state--20 years after his release from prison.

Thomas Webb III was convicted in 1983 of the rape of a University of Oklahoma student. In that case, a man broke into the woman's apartment, raped her at knifepoint, and stole money from her purse. Webb, an innocent man, was sentenced to 55 years in prison.

After several years in prison, Webb married a woman he met through a Christian prison ministry. After the couple married, Cynthia Gail Webb, his wife, cashed in her retirement to pay for DNA testing on the evidence that remained on the OU student's robe.

The DNA showed that Webb was not the man who raped the student, and the evidence exonerated him. In 1996, after spending 13 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Webb left the Cleveland County Courthouse with his arms raised, shouting, "Hallelujah!"

He became the first person in Oklahoma to be exonerated through DNA evidence. Since then, 11 others have been exonerated in Oklahoma through DNA evidence.

But Webb's victory was short-lived. Although he was free, Webb was not entitled to compensation from the state that wrongly convicted him. He in his wife campaigned for change, and in 2003, the law was changed to allow those wrongly convicted of crimes and exonerated by DNA evidence to pursue financial compensation from the state. However, the law was not applied retroactively, therefore doing nothing to help the man who spent more than a decade behind bars for a rape he did not commit.

Frustrated at being denied a chance at compensation and left with emotional trauma from his incarceration, Webb turned to drugs and alcohol in 2003. By 2007, he was arrested and charged with meth possession; he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation. In 2009, Cynthia Webb divorced him.

In 2014, prosecutors charged a Mississippi man with the OU student's rape after the DNA evidence obtained from the woman's robe led to a match. Finally, it appeared that the guilty party would pay for his crimes. However, prosecutors were forced to dismiss the case because of the statute of limitations. This led to further frustration for Webb: an innocent man spent 13 years behind bars, but the guilty man would not serve any time for the rape.

Webb, now four years sober, and his attorney recently asked Attorney General Mike Hunter's office to reconsider Webb's request for compensation. Hunter agreed, saying, "We determined ... that there was authority for the law to be applied retroactively. We felt strongly that the law supported Mr. Webb receiving the money and, on behalf of the state, I'm just sorry for him that this happened and I'm sorry that this is all we can do." The state awarded Webb $175,000--the maximum allowable for a wrongful conviction in Oklahoma. Webb's attorney says that the law needs to be changed to allow a jury to award just compensation, but in the meantime, this compensation is a victory for a man denied justice for so long.

As for his plans for the settlement? Webb says he intends to repay his ex-wife for her help in getting him out of prison.

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