Fortunately, quite a bit of legislation I've been working on for the Innocence Project of Texas is still alive and variously wending its way through the process. I spent a long, grueling day a the capitol yesterday waiting for the House of Representatives to adjourn so the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee could hear several pieces of innocence-related legislation at a hearing that didn't start until 10 p.m.:
- SB 116 by Ellis/Farrar which promotes recording custodial interrogations
- SB 1976 by Whitmire/Gallego expanding post-conviction writ access in cases with discredited forensics
- SB 1681 by Hinojosa/Gallego requiring corroboration for jailhouse informants
- SB 1847 by Hegar/Moody letting exonerated inmates access the same services as parolees when they immediately leave prison.
Another important innocence-related bill, SB 117 (Ellis/Gallego), has already been heard and is awaiting action by the same committee. It would require law enforcement agencies to have written policies regarding eyewitness identification procedures, a reform that the Court of Criminal Appeals' Criminal Justice Integrity Unit said should be the highest legislative priority for preventing false convictions.
Meanwhile, HB 1736 (Anchia/Duncan), increasing compensation for exonerees, passed out of the Senate State Affairs Committee on Monday and will likely be heard on the Senate floor by the end of the week.
The fact that these bills are all being considered in the second chamber means they've got an excellent chance of passing in some form or fashion, though we won't necessarily know for another few weeks what that final form will be.
What's clear, though, from the support garnered by these bills so far, is that many folks at the Legislature now understand the parade of innocent men walking out of Texas prisons exonerated by DNA evidence should be a wake up call that a broken justice system needs their attention - not just because prisons are expensive but because some of the prisoners in them shouldn't be there.
Jeff Blackburn said it well to the committee last night testifying on SB 1976: The reason we've seen 39 DNA exonerations in Texas is because the Legislature passed a DNA-testing statute in 2001, not because the courts did their job or the system was working well. And it's folly to expect the justice system to improve further without additional legislative action.
Most of this legislation has been scaled back and compromised during the process, and none of these bills is a cure-all: The Lege can't just pass them and then go back to their districts to declare the problem of convicting innocent people "fixed." But I feel like the body - in both chambers - is taking the issue much more seriously this year than at any time in recent memory. As I told the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee (sometime after midnight) last night, I'm thankful for it.
UPDATE: This afternoon (5/7), SB 116, SB 117, SB 1976, and SB 1681 were all voted out of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.