Texas Senate must move quickly to pass exoneration bill

Posted Wednesday, May. 15, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

Topics: Texas Senate

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There is a stain on the Texas criminal justice system that no spot remover can erase.

But Texas’ indelible shame of having sent too many innocent people to prison should not keep lawmakers, law enforcement officials, judges and prosecutors from working to improve the procedures whose flaws have led to serious mistakes.

With 117 exonerations, Texas leads the nation in erroneous convictions. Since 1994, there have been 49 exonerations based on DNA testing; 41 of those occurred in the last 12 years.

To its credit, the Legislature in the last few sessions has passed legislation aimed at reducing the chances of convicting innocent people, including strengthening the reliability of eyewitness identification such as through photo lineups.

This week, the state House passed the Michael Morton Act on a vote of 146-0. Named for a man who was wrongly convicted of murder in Williamson County after a district attorney withheld important evidence, the bill requires prosecutors to have an “open file” policy of sharing information with defense attorneys.

Ken Anderson, the district attorney in the Morton case, is now a state district judge. During a court of inquiry in April, Anderson was charged with tampering with physical evidence, tampering with government records and failing to comply with a judge’s order in the case.

The Morton case and many others in which the system failed make it extremely important that another pending bill is not allowed to die in the Senate.

HB166, which passed the House with strong bipartisan support, would create the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission, a nine-member body that would examine all Texas cases in which a conviction was erased through exoneration.

The panel is named for a Fort Worth man who died in prison before his innocence was proven. Timothy Cole became the first person in the state to be exonerated posthumously.

The commission’s role would be to “identify errors and defects” in the criminal justice process and point out “ethical violations or misconduct by attorneys or judges.”

The Texas District and County Attorneys Association opposes HB166. The bill got hung up in a contentious meeting of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee Tuesday when there was a heated exchange between Cory Session (Cole’s brother) and Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, who was acting chair in Sen. John Whitmire’s absence.

Although senate sponsor Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, had watered down the bill to win approval in the upper chamber — removing the commission’s subpoena power, for one — Huffman made it clear that she was against the legislation, saying it wasn’t needed because of all the “significant reforms” the Legislature has made in the criminal justice system.

Session stormed out of the hearing, uttering an expletive in reference to Huffman as he left.

He told the Star-Telegram Editorial Board on Wednesday that he regretted the situation escalated to that point but that he did not apologize for it.

The legislation is needed, he said, to uncover defects in the criminal justice system and make recommendations for improving it. Session noted that two of the state’s most powerful judges support it: Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson and Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

Session said prosecutors are against it because “they’re afraid they’ll find another Ken Anderson.”

It would be the commission’s job to report any findings of prosecutorial, judicial or police misconduct.

Let there be an examination of each exoneration case, dissected from arrest through conviction, and let the public know what’s discovered. What could be the harm in that, especially if it helps refine the overall system and prevents other wrongful convictions?

But time is running out. The Senate needs to get this out of committee, passed on the floor and reconciled with the House, all in about a week’s time. It can, and must, be done.

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