Friday, May 09, 2008

More from the Texas Innocence Summit

Just wanted to mention a couple more highlights from yesterday's "Innocence Summit" in the Texas Chambers before putting my notes away:

Robert Wilonsky cited AP for the money quote from Dallas DA Craig Watkins' presentation, that "It can be argued that Texas ... may have one of the worst criminal justice systems in this country." A couple of heads shot up in the audience for sure, I can tell you, when he made that comment (though nobody spoke up to argue the point).

Some of the strongest exoneree testimony came from Billy Smith, who actually declared that "nineteen years in prison made me a better person," even though he believes strongly that "I am a victim." Why then, is he "better"? "I'm not mad anymore," he declared, "because if I'd hung onto my anger and rage I wouldn't have survived." If he's not mad about what happened, he's certainly a better man than I am.

"It doesn't make a difference if I was in prison two times before," said Smith, "I didn't do this one." Like the other men, Smith knew he was lucky that DNA testing ultimately cleared him. "A lot of innocent people are going to die in prison," he said, "I'll guarantee you that."

Another exoneree, Alejandro Hernandez from El Paso, mentioned an issue I'd like to learn more about: He's concerned that Texas' statute (Chapter 64 of the Code of Criminal Procedure) allowing post-conviction DNA testing only contemplates new tests if the "identity" of the defendant is at question, but he wants to expand the use to help identify other suspects, which he said would have helped in his case. (If I remember correctly, Steven Phillips was also caught in that legal conundrum.) One of the terrific things about so many exonerations occurring back to back to back is that each one is just a little bit different, and frequently, with 20/20 hindsight, it's possible to identify unnecessary barriers, like these limits on post-conviction DNA testing, to clearing more innocent people.

Barry Scheck of the original NYC based Innocence Project emphasized that while some exonerations had come in cases that clearly resulted from prosecutor misconduct, an even more common contributing factor to wrongful convictions is "ineffective assistance" by criminal defense lawyers. He suggested complaints against lawyers on both sides of the aisle should be more thoroughly tracked and vetted (and I would add, publicized). Those sentiments were repeated in some vein by several speakers, including Sen. Ellis.

Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire had several poignant comments and questions that are worth recording. For starters, he declared (with Chief Harold Hurtt in the audience) that he thinks Houston PD should not operate its own crime lab, that forensic science work should be done by an independent body who think of themselves as scientists first instead of police. Good point! Regular readers know I'm not a great believer in the supposed neutrality of most forensic science.

Whitmire told the public officials in the room that "You need to read your mail," implying (accurately) that many elected officials pay little attention to jail mail and don't take letters from prisoners seriously. That mentality has contributed to wrongful convictions by sweeping legitimate voices under the rug, he said.

He also emphasized that any legislator who wants to be "tuff on crime" should also be tough on wrongful convictions, because that meant the guilty person went free. Whitmire criticized the Houston crime lab for ending its investigation into possible wrongful convictions before the lead investigator, Michael Bromwich, thought he was finished.

An audience member from Houston protested that they only ended the investigation after the city spent $6 million dollars on it, but Whitmire shot back that they hadn't gone through all the cases, and the Harris DA had $20 million sitting in its asset forfeiture fund that Chuck Rosenthal could have used to finish the job. No rebuttal was offered amidst the awkward silence that followed that declaration!

See yesterday's post about the event for more on the topic.

1 comment:

lowery.shirley said...

Are there any results on Michael Blair's tests? All of these years he has claimed that he is not responsible for the death of Ashley Estelle. If his conviction is overturned there will be reaction. Most of us remember the grisly murder of this little girl and the laws that stemmed from that case. If the real killer is someone other than Michael Blair there will be an outcry. It won't be so much about Blair's wrongful conviction as knowing this vicious killer remained free.