Texas' chief justice wants investigation of all wrongful convictions

Posted Thursday, Mar. 07, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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AUSTIN -- State Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson called for a special commission to investigate wrongful convictions, suggesting Wednesday that public faith in the legal system may be undermined given that Texas leads the nation in prisoners set free by DNA testing.

In his biennial address to the Legislature, the chief justice of Texas' highest civil court told lawmakers that "if innocent people are rotting in prison for crimes they did not commit, we certainly have not achieved justice for all."

Jefferson pointed to statistics showing that over the last 25 years, 117 Texans have been exonerated -- 47 of those by DNA testing, the most nationwide. Those figures are not new, but Jefferson used them to again call for "a commission to investigate each instance of exoneration, to assess the likelihood of wrongful convictions in future cases and to establish statewide reforms."

Though the Texas Court of Appeals is the highest criminal court, Jefferson was speaking for the entire judiciary in his speech.

Texas lawmakers came close to establishing an innocence commission during the last session two years ago. Jefferson saluted Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, a San Antonio Democrat, for sponsoring a similar measure this year. He also hailed Houston Democratic Sen. Rodney Ellis, a national chairman of the Innocence Project, which specializes in using DNA testing to overturn wrongful convictions.

Jefferson said cases overturned by new DNA evidence "leave us with the distinct impression that we today suffer from a systemic deficit in our collective approach to the way we decide how to administer criminal justice." He mentioned the case of Michael Morton, an Austin grocery store inventory manager who spent 25 years in prison for his wife's slaying before DNA evidence exonerated him in 2011.

The chief justice also noted that Texas has a "top-notch judicial system" but only for those who can afford legal services. He urged more funding for state legal aid programs and said that despite some recent gains, Texas still ranks 48th in per capita funding for indigent defense.

'Criminalizing children'

Jefferson also criticized officials for over-ticketing in Texas schools, saying "we have elected to give our children tickets for the kind of misbehavior that, in the old days, landed you and me in the principal's office."

He said an estimated 30,000 misdemeanor tickets are issued annually statewide, adding "we are criminalizing our children for non-violent offenses."

"We must keep our children in school and out of our courts to give them the opportunity to follow a path of success, not a path toward prison," Jefferson said, drawing sustained applause.

The justice is pushing for three specific bills to deal with that issue.

Senate Bill 393 would end the practice of ticketing for students with disciplinary problems that are currently considered criminal misdemeanors, and replace it with a system of "progressive sanctions," including warning letters, community service and referrals to counseling. SB 394 would expand confidentiality for youths who have had misdemeanors dismissed, to keep their records clean.

SB 395 would allow juveniles convicted of certain nonviolent offenses to settle their court costs through community service, or have them waived if they are indigent.

All three were authored by state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

Guardianship

Jefferson also announced the creation of a special committee of the Texas Judicial Council to look at reforming the state's guardianship system, in which court appointees make decisions and manage the interests of incapacitated individuals.

"An exploding elderly population will stress the guardianship system," he said. "We must begin to address these issues and prepare."

Currently, he said, Texas has 368 state-certified guardians handling 5,000 guardianships. The number of individuals needing guardianship, he said, is 40,000.

This report contains material from The Texas Tribune.

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