Wednesday, February 11, 2009

State of Judiciary address promotes indigent defense, innocence reforms

In his State of the Judiciary address (pdf) delivered today on the floor of the Texas House, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson made two points implicating criminal justice topics. The first related to indigent defense; the Chief Justice declared:
Access to justice for low-income Texans continues to require the coordinated efforts of all branches of government. The number of those qualifying for court appointed counsel in a criminal case is on the rise, especially in light of a recent United States Supreme Court‘s recent ruling that requires the appointment of counsel for defendants before charges are filed. Last session the Legislature increased state funding to help ensure access to court appointed counsel for low-income Texans. The additional funding has enabled the Task Force on Indigent Defense, under the leadership of Presiding Judge Sharon Keller of the Court of Criminal Appeals, to assist a number of jurisdictions in the establishment of public defender offices. The two newest programs are a regional office serving Bowie and Red River Counties and a public defender created by Lubbock County serving sixty-five counties. And our program to provide legal services to the poor, led by a great Texan, Jim Sales, has been impaired by the national economic downturn. I hope the Legislature will help us preserve this program, upon which thousands of Texans have come to rely to protect their legal rights.
Jefferson also emphasized problems on the criminal side related to convicting innocent people, calling for the implementation of eyewitness identification reforms and an innocence commission so Texas justice can learn from its mistakes and correct them. He pronounced that:
no system of justice is successful if it leads to the incarceration of citizens who have committed no crime. I have long advocated creation of a commission to study wrongful convictions. The recent exoneration of Charles Allan Chatman, who spent twenty-seven years in jail for a crime he did not commit, and last week’s posthumous exoneration of Timothy Cole, only confirm the need to confront this issue. The Court of Criminal Appeals’ Justice Integrity Unit has brought about meaningful reform through education, training, and legislative recommendations. It has achieved significant advancements in the areas of eyewitness identification procedures, collection, preservation, and storage of evidence, and writs of habeas corpus. There is even a proposal for a traveling DNA lab. While this is impressive progress, I continue to commend the creation of a commission to investigate each instance of DNA exoneration, to assess the likelihood of wrongful convictions in future cases, and to establish statewide reforms.
Jefferson was a bit premature to claim the Court of Criminal Appeals "Integrity Unit" has "brought about meaningful reform" or "achieved significant advancements." The group has only met four times, and then only to hear presentations, never to deliberate or make recommendations. But even acknowledging a problem exists with convicting innocent people represents a big step forward for the Texas CCA - on that much Jefferson and I wholeheartedly agree. It'll be up to the Legislature, though, not the CCA's "Integrity Unit" to make sure that good intentions are translated into good public policy.


Anonymous said...

A good word from the judicial branch. Hopefully the legislative branch will bring forth meaningful reforms, and the executive will execute, but not in Huntsville!

Rev. Charles

Anonymous said...

Sharon Keller should be removed from office for her unethical behavior during the "we close at 5" incident.

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to understand... when counties provide indigent defense council for those who cannot afford an attorney,how can they turn around and bill the indigent person over $2,500 for attorney fees and court cost.