Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Brandon Moon: Give Prisoners Open Records Access

Left to Right: Brandon Moon,
Barry Scheck, and George Rodriguez

More from this hearing:
ACLUTX Crime Lab Testimony.

Two innocent men yesterday, each wrongfully incarcerated for 17 years in different cases by the State of Texas, testified to the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee that the system wouldn't hear their pleas for help.

Brandon Moon and George Rodriguez were both freed based on appellate work by the Innocence Project, led by the estimable Barry Scheck of Yeshiva University, Cardozo Law School. Both men were released after re-tests of DNA samples excluded them as suspects; those re-tests were made possible by a new law authored by state Sen. Rodney Ellis in 2003.

These stories from the MSM tell pretty accurately what was said at this hearing about crime lab issues, including Sen. Tommy Williams comment that he'd been in washaterias that were cleaner than the Houston crime lab.
Grits published ACLU's written testimony to the committee earlier today.

I wanted to mention, instead, two things Brandon Moon said that none of those outlets emphasized.

First, Sen. John Whitmire asked Moon if he knew of any other Texas prisoners who he thought had credible innocence claims. Moon said he knew of at least two. One inmate from Harris County, he said, he knew only in prison as "Bubba." When Moon left prison, he took Bubba's personal information and gave it to Barry Scheck, he said. The other possibly innocent inmate Moon personally knew is named Timothy Jackson, who Moon recalled was from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

None of the media accounts so far mentioned these potentially innocent men.

Moon's second notable comment also came in response to a question from Chairman Whitmire. The senator asked Moon what barriers the state had erected to innocent prisoners pursuing justice, and without blinking Moon replied that two, fundamental barriers had thwarted his efforts. First, Texas prisoners have no right to receive information about their case, or anything else, under the Texas public information act, so Moon couldn't get access to the information he needed to combat the prosecution's claims.

The argument for disallowing inmate open records requests has always been that they would be endlessly filing them, having little but time on their hands, and that their requests would tie up government agencies. I've always thought that was bogus. Requestors must pay for copies they receive, so there's a real limit to how many requests most inmates are able to make. Plus, reading government records is a really boring hobby (trust me on this), and few inmates will ever request reams of government data just for fun. The real result of the law, Moon's example shows, is to keep inmates blind and unable to examine even information that could clear them.

Second, inmate writ writers just aren't taken seriously in the courts, he said, and Moon couldn't get hearings on most of his motions before Sen. Ellis' new law allowed the new DNA testing.
The New York Times quoted Moon on this point (if a bit out of context): "I had no method of enforcing procedures," he said. "I could file all the motions I wanted, but I couldn't get heard."

Would more prisoners be able to prove their innocence if they had access to the public information act and if courts more seriously considered writ writers' pleas? Brandon Moon thinks so.

UPDATE: The El Paso Times reported Moon's open records statements.


Walter said...

I was a student at UTEP at the time Moon was convicted, and although I don't remember the incident it's distubing to think it could happen to anyone.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I hear you. The horror of wrongful incarceration, especially for THAT long, is just unfathomable.

A District Attorney from Wichita Falls testified at the same hearing. He pointed out that even if the system is 99.9% infallible, and he said he believed that it was, that one-tenth of one percent meant that there were 150-200 innocent people in Texas prisons, given how many folks are inside. And that's a DA talking!

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This is very good that he is set free and bad that this was able to happen. With new DNA we will stop this in the future. Good post.