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Texas' top criminal court creates unit to study justice system

In reaction to the growing number of wrongful convictions uncovered across the state, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals announced Wednesday that it is creating a Texas Criminal Justice Integrity Unit to investigate and address weaknesses in the criminal justice system.

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Barbara Hervey said the 12-member unit will include members of the Texas Legislature, judges, district attorneys and criminal defense attorneys.

"This is a call to action to address the growing concerns with our criminal justice system," Hervey said. "Although we applaud all previous studies and dialogue, it is now time to act and move for reform."

Hervey said the court, which is the highest criminal court in Texas, will continue to work closely with Gov. Rick Perry, state Sen. Rodney Ellis and the various innocence projects and clinics as well as currently incarcerated individuals who may have been wrongfully convicted.

Among the issues to be addressed by the new unit will be the quality of defense counsel for poor criminal defendants, procedures for improving eyewitness identification, and standards for collection, preservation and storage of evidence.

Creation of the integrity unit comes after a recent call by Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller as well as lawmakers to create a statewide innocence commission. The call came after a summit meeting in Austin last month where nine exonerated men called on lawmakers to examine the causes of wrongful convictions and try to prevent them.

Thirty-three men have been exonerated in Texas since 1994 -- with 17 in Dallas County since 2001 by DNA testing.

Gov. Perry did not support the idea, saying the state didn't need another layer of bureaucracy. But Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has said he supported it.

"While more government does not necessarily mean better government, reflection and willingness to improve does respond to the need of our system and our citizens," Hervey said.

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins started a conviction integrity unit in his office soon after taking office in January 2007 as the first African-American district attorney in Texas, saying something had to be done to double-check the criminal justice system. He later called for a statewide integrity unit.

He also moved into his offices the Innocence Project of Texas, a consortium of several universities in Texas including Texas Wesleyan University School of Law and the Texas Tech School of Law, to review about 500 cases involving DNA evidence.

That followed other reforms instituted by Watkins, including the use of the open-file policy of the Tarrant County district attorney's office which allows defense attorneys to see some of the same evidence that prosecutors see.