Exoneration bill came mighty close to dying

Texas leads the nation in the number of exonerations of individuals who have been wrongly convicted and imprisoned — 200 overall, 57 through DNA testing.

Those numbers alone dictate that this state should figure out how so many of those tragic mistakes happened in our criminal justice system and find ways to ensure it doesn’t occur again.

That’s what the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission, which will be created under House Bill 48, was designed to do.

Bearing the name of a Fort Worth man whose exoneration came after he had died in prison, the legislation is another way the state can address what have been obvious flaws in the justice system.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-Houston, noted in her author’s statement: “It is important we learn how through every stage of the process — from arrest through appeal — how and why the justice system makes such mistakes, and ways in which we can implement more reliable practices to improve public safety and prevent such mistakes moving forward.”

Lawmakers in the House passed the legislation 134-6 on May 1 and sent it to the Senate, where it was watered down before passing unanimously on Tuesday, and being sent back to the House Thursday.

Among the changes to the House version, the Senate put an expiration date on the 11-member commission of Dec. 1, 2016, and limited the examination of cases to exonerations that occurred after Jan. 1, 2010.

Assuming that the commission would not hold its first meeting before October of this year, the expiration gives the body only about 14 months to do its work and report results.

Ideally, this important commission would have been allowed to exist until its work is done and would have been permitted to examine all 200 cases.

But with the legislative session set to end Monday, it was mandatory that the House decide quickly whether to accept or reject the Senate’s changes, so the bill wouldn’t die. The House concurred, and now the bill goes to the governor.

While it’s not the legislation many had hoped for, it is better than having no bill at all.