Two other pieces of legislation for a brief moment had passed both chambers on Friday as amendments to HB 498, but after a 110-28 record vote approved the measure, Rep. Carl Isett moved to reconsider the bill and it was sent to a conference committee, where the amendments were stripped off for germaneness.
Sen. Rodney Ellis earlier in the day had requested the House appoint a conference committee and approve a resolution to "go outside the bounds" to consider eyewitness ID, but that resolution never came and instead the bill was denuded of all policy substance to become a bill to study whether to study the causes of false convictions.
We didn't need more study by the Legislature on this issue, we needed action. Eyewitness ID errors make up 80% of DNA exoneration cases and the Court of Criminal Appeals' Criminal Justice Integrity Unit said it should be the Legislature's highest priority for preventing false convictions. But unless the issue is added to a call in a special session, at least two more years will pass before the Lege can begin to rectify the problem.
That's inexcusable. It's not okay for the Legislature to know that innocent people are being convicted under the statutes they've written and simply decline to prevent it.
The science on eyewitness ID is strong enough to where, if it can't be done legislatively, IMO it's incumbent on the courts to do it (even if the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals as currently constituted seems likely not up to the task). This isn't a "when we get around to it" kind of deal; the risk of false identification is significant every time old, outdated techniques are used, which is dozens of times per day statewide. So given the volume of lineups performed, it's a certainty there will be more false convictions in Texas in the future because the Lege failed to act.
Ironically, while ignoring most legislation on the causes of false convictions, the Lege did pass and the Governor signed HB 1736 increasing payments to exonerees, even as, by their own inaction, they ensured there will be many more of them.
The only bill passed aimed at preventing false convictions was a modest proposal to require corroboration for testimony by jailhouse snitches (SB 1681 by Hinojosa), something prosecutors insisted usually happens anyway. (A more ambitious bill regulating informant use, SB 260, never even received a hearing.) Otherwise, innocence legislation killed by the voter ID debacle included:
- Recording custodial interrogations (SB 116)
- Expanding access to writs in cases of discredited science (SB 1964)
- Restricting reasons judges can deny postconviction DNA tests (SB 1864)
Senate Republicans sent that message when they overrode traditional practices to exclude the voter ID bill from the 2/3 rule. Voter ID was the most important issue in the state, they crowed, though it's notable none of them ever made that statement to anyone from Timothy Cole's family, who were up at the capitol many times throughout session asking the Lege to approve reforms.
The Speaker and the Calendars Committee sent the same message when they placed voter ID on the Major State calendar ahead of critical innocence reforms, even though they knew a fight was brewing. And House Democrats chubbed away caring more about their vote margins at election time than the fate of innocent people in the justice system.
These bills would have been modest first steps, not a cure-all, but now even those first efforts will be delayed because most people at the Texas Lege are too preoccupied with electoral navel gazing and tit for tat partisanship. Embarrassing. And angering.
MORE: From the Lubbock Avalanche Journal, "Wrongful conviction bills die."