Texas Senate should approve bill to create exoneration commission

Posted Saturday, Apr. 27, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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sanders Because of two major breaking news stories the week of April 14 -- bomb blasts at the Boston Marathon and the explosion in West -- many of you may have missed another significant story that occurred.

An arrest warrant was issued for a Texas judge April 19 after a special court of inquiry found there was probable cause that he had withheld evidence in a murder case for which an innocent man was convicted and sent to prison.

Michael Morton, convicted in 1987 of killing his wife, spent almost 25 years in the penitentiary before DNA evidence proved that he was innocent. The prosecutor in the case was former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson, now a state district judge.

District Judge Louis Sturns of Tarrant County was appointed by Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson to preside over the special hearing.

"This court cannot think of a more intentionally harmful act than a prosecutor's conscious choice to hide mitigating evidence so as to create an uneven playing field for a defendant facing a murder charge and a life sentence," Sturns said after charging Anderson with tampering with physical evidence, tampering with government records and failing to comply with a judge's order.

Anderson has filed an appeal, contending that his arrest warrant violated the statute of limitations for the charges.

Regardless of what happens next, this case has given credence to some attorneys' claims that many of the wrongful convictions in this state were more than innocent mistakes or errors in the process, but instead prosecutorial or law enforcement misconduct. One good thing that has come out of Morton's wrongful conviction and the evidence against the DA who prosecuted him is new legislation bearing Morton's name. Earlier this month, the Texas Senate unanimously passed the Michael Morton Act, which instructs prosecutors to share exculpatory evidence with defense attorneys.

Another bill named in honor of an exoneree, which passed the House last week, would create the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission, a nine-member body that would examine all the exoneration cases in the state. There have been more than 100 exonerations in Texas since 1989, and the commission's job would be to "identify errors and defects" throughout the criminal justice process, as well as point out any "ethical violations or misconduct by attorneys or judges."

In addition, the governor-appointed commission would make recommendations for improving laws and procedures and report any wrongdoing to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, the State Bar of Texas, the attorney general or another appropriate agency.

Cole was a Fort Worth veteran and Texas Tech student who was convicted of rape in Lubbock in 1986. He continued to maintain his innocence even when offered opportunities to be freed from prison if he would admit guilt.

He had served almost 15 years of his sentence when he died behind bars in 1999 during an asthma attack. Cole was exonerated after this death, and in 2010 Gov. Rick Perry issued the state's first posthumous pardon for him.

Near Cole's grave site, which I visited again Thursday afternoon, is a state historical maker that tells his painful story. Part of the inscription reads, "This promise of fairness for all Texans is the legacy of a man who once wrote from prison that 'I still believe in the justice system, even though it doesn't believe in me.'"

Another piece of legislation was named for Cole in 2009. It provides terms for compensation and other services to those wrongfully convicted.

But to help lessen the chance of another Cole or Morton being falsely accused and imprisoned, the exoneration review commission must become a reality. The bill (HB166) was approved Tuesday on a voice vote and was sent to the Senate on Thursday.

It must not die there.

Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays.

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