From the Houston Chronicle, Roma Khanna and Steve McVicker report "Legal help scarce in HPD crime lab cases." Disgracefully, "nearly two-thirds of defendants convicted with faulty evidence have received little help in determining how, or if, their convictions could be affected." Many people convicted with shabby crime lab analyses were never notified that evidence in their case had been invalidated.
Uh ... why?
The short answer may be found in another item today from Max Baker at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "Former inmates seek innocence commission": The Legislature and most DAs have failed to establish mechanisms to review possible innocence cases.
Except in Dallas, where the new DA has partnered with the Texas Tech innocence project to systematically review DNA evidence, there is no structural way for authorities to review these old cases once a conviction is final. Anthony Robinson, who spent ten years in TDCJ wrongfully convicted of rape, told innocence project volunteers at a training in Fort Worth that
six other states have established innocence commissions. Since Texas has one of the nation's largest prison systems and routinely puts inmates to death, Robinson said he doesn't understand why Texas doesn't have a similar agency. ...The state bears responsibility for wrongful convictions, and rooting them out should be a state function, not left to volunteers and happenstance. The failure of revelations from the Houston crime lab to result in affected cases being re-examined, in my mind, can only stem from utter incompetence or a profound indifference. Sadly, I don't think the Harris County DA is incompetent.
"If Texas is to remain great, we need to step up and fight the good fight," Robinson said. "This is not a set of isolated incidents. There have been a lot of bitter tears shed."
With the Texas Legislature, of course, the question of incompetence vs. indifference isn't as clear - indeed, it could always be both.
Legislation to create an "innocence commission" in Texas to do just that died in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee this spring, even though all but two of the nine committee members claimed to support it. As we discussed ad nauseum during session, Chairman Aaron Peña held the bill till the committee's final meeting, then brought it up for a vote when supporters were out of the room.
Peña has said that failure was unintentional, and maybe so. But compared to the way he hustled through bills expanding local wiretap authority and making it easier to convict innocent people of sex crimes, not to mention the fact that as chairman Peña authored no innocence-related bills of his own, one may certainly conclude the Democrat failed to prioritize the problem of wrongful convictions, an omission that threatens to undermine the integrity of the whole system in the eyes of the public.
I'm glad to see innocence commission supporters beginning their efforts now to promote this critical reform. In addition, something needs to happen to mandate improving eyewitness identification procedures used by police - hopefully starting with a legislative interim study.
In days past, American jurisprudence prided itself on the notion that it was better to let ten guilty men go free than to incarcerate an innocent one. The idea that the legal system hasn't examined 2/3 of the faulty Houston crime lab cases ... indeed, that prosecutors didn't even notify the defendants! ... tells me those values in practice are disdained or defenestrated.