Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Innocence reforms needed to make sex offender laws palatable

It looks like the array of sex offender legislation heard in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee last night was left pending in committee, though some of it could be voted out as early as next week. (See MSM coverage of the hearing here and here. I'd earlier discussed this legislation here.)

I couldn't be at the hearing, but one of my sources expressed surprise to hear the Tarrant County DA coming out against the 25-year mandatory minimum for first offenders in Rep. Debbie Riddle's HB 8 (Jessica's Law). David Montague of the Tarrant DA's office told the committee that children would be less likely to testify against a parent or close relative if the sentence was too harsh. (I'd encourage those interested to read Michael Connelly's terrific analysis at Corrections Sentencing about other problems posed with one-size-fits-all sex offender sentencing.)

Another key part of the bill would extend the statute of limitations on child molestation cases, and Montague supported that. But I think that's an awful idea unless the Lege simultaneously installs new protections against convicting innocent people.

In his State of the Judiciary speech yesterday, Texas Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson acknowledged "the unfortunate reality that our criminal justice system, on rare occasions, convicts the innocent." Many of those "rare occasions" involve eyewitness testimony that turns out to be wrong. Indeed, just last month, James Waller in Dallas was released after serving 24 years on a child molestation charge that DNA evidence proved he did not commit.

Given that "unfortunate reality," it'd be irresponsible to extend the statute of limitations without installing new innocence reforms, especially improved access to DNA testing for defendants, requiring best practices for lineups and photo arrays, and corroboration for eyewitnesses who did not previously know the defendant. That's especially important when decades have passed between the alleged crime and the witness' testimony.

UPDATE: Vince has more here and here. Also, at the end of today's full session of the House, the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee announced a desk meeting to consider HB 8 upon adjournment, meaning the bill will likely be kicked out of committee then. NUTHER UPDATE: The bill was voted out of committee at a desk meeting on the House floor with a 5-0 vote, and 4 committee members absent. MORE from Chairman Peña.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, the legal eagles in Austin are trying to fix the problems that are a result of a broken system. Judges and prosecutors who have an agenda and forget why they are there, are the problem! Expanding laws and minimum sentencing will not fix the aforementioned problem. It's time for the public to DEMAND accountability in the Courthouses in Texas! Every election should be a call for Judges and D.A.'s who do the right thing, No matter how unpopular....CSO Bexar County

Anonymous said...

I do believe that sex perverts that approach children in a sexual manner should be severly convicted, but, what about the 15 year old that had sex with a girl his same age that consented to the intercourse? Why should he be convicted after the girl acuses him of rape because she couldn't confront her parents with the truth? why should he be convicted. Don't get me wrong I was to sexually abused as a child by a grown man but there is inccidents in which the law protects the wrong person!