A blue-ribbon panel named after a wrongfully convicted inmate from Fort Worth is beginning a prolonged mission toward reforming criminal justice in Texas, fueled by a ballooning controversy over the possibility that the state may have executed an innocent man.The group will hold its first meeting today at 10 a.m. at the Texas Association of Counties building downtown in Austin.
The Tim Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions will conduct its first meeting today, starting a yearlong effort toward recommending new safeguards against erroneous convictions.
The panel’s review parallels an uproar over the shakeup of a state commission seeking to determine whether a flawed arson investigation led to the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, an unemployed mechanic from Corsicana.
Cole was wrongfully convicted in 1986 and died in prison 13 years later before being posthumously exonerated this year. His brother, Cory Session, also of Fort Worth, said he plans to cite the Willingham case when he addresses the panel.
"It’s hard to overlook the possibility that an innocent man was executed," Session said. "Just like my brother Tim till the day he died, they both said, 'I didn’t do it.’ We just can’t take it lightly anymore when somebody says they’re innocent." ...
Tim Cole became the face of the legislative effort that led to creation of the panel during the 2009 session. "Texas still has a long way to go to ensure that the innocent remain free and the guilty are brought to justice," said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who sponsored legislation creating the panel.
The 10-member panel, which will work under the umbrella of the state’s Task Force on Indigent Defense, will conduct a study and recommend new laws to the 2011 Legislature. Its goals include overcoming mistaken eyewitness identifications and false confessions — which account for a large percentage of wrongful convictions in Texas — and increased funding to defend indigent people.
Texas ranked 44th in funding for indigent defense in 2005, spending $6.14 per capita, according to Ellis’s office. Texas has had 41 convictions overturned by DNA, more than any other state.
I must admit, given what's happened with the Todd Willingham investigation at the Forensic Science Commission, I'm a tad pessimistic as this group begins that the Tim Cole Advisory Panel will be allowed to do their work without political interference, particularly if their findings imply the need for significant changes to the justice system.
I hope they do a thorough job and come up with a sound set of recommendations, but it's not like at this point it's not well known what reforms are needed to fix the problems creating so many false convictions - improving eyewitness ID procedures, recording interrogations, improving protections from mendacious informants, and making forensics more scientific and independent from law enforcement, all come to mind for starters. What's been lacking is political will from the Lege and leadership from the Governor, and this advisory panel can't change those things.
We'll see; the Tim Cole panel will get a chance to show us what they're made of before the 82nd Legislature rolls around. And until then, at least their presence will help keep focus on innocence issues and produce recommendations that will put the topic back on the legislative agenda, in some way shape or form, in 2011. So as my Dad likes to say, it's better than a sharp stick in the eye and a positive development, even if it's less than half a loaf compared to the substantive innocence reforms I'd hoped would be enacted last spring.