Grits was thankful, then, that Leslie Minora at the Dallas Observer beat me to rebutting Sanders' argument, following up with an article seeking "the real reason" for the difference. For that purpose, she called up a pair of attorneys who, in the interest of full disclosure, are on the executive committee at my employer, the Innocence Project of Texas:
Mike Ware, a Fort Worth criminal defense attorney who lead the Conviction Integrity Unit in the Dallas County District Attorney's office until last year, doesn't feel the Star-Telegram's conclusion that open files explain lack of exonerations is well-supported. "He just doesn't have near enough information to reach that conclusion," Ware says.
The writer of the Star-Telegram piece deduces that stewards of criminal justice in Tarrant County can rest easy: "[I]t's good to know there have long been procedures in place that helped prevent many of the horrendous miscarriages of justice we've seen in Dallas and other places around the state."
That seems patently ridiculous to Jeff Blackburn, an Amarillo criminal defense attorney and chief counsel to the Innocence Project of Texas.
I sent Blackburn the link and asked for his thoughts as someone who's handled innocence cases around the state.That last point is perhaps the most important: Dallas has identified more false convictions than Tarrant for the same reason the guy with a metal detector on the beach is more likely than me to find buried treasure: He's looking for it. Dallas partnered with the Innocence Project of Texas to set up a system to vet potential false convictions, while most other counties (besides Harris) tend to react defensively to the possibility and fly by the seat of their pants instead of submitting the cases through a well-defined vetting process.
His response: "That's baloney, and awfully smug. How about a call."
He says the discrepancy between the number of people exonerated in Tarrant County and Dallas County isn't due to the system that locked them up but to the system that's freeing them. In many cases, Tarrant County doesn't have the biological evidence to test, Blackburn and Ware both point out. Dallas does, has for decades.
Grits agrees Tarrant's open file policy represents the gold standard among Texas prosecutors, but no one should get carried away by that to reach the conclusion Sanders posits. After all, prosecutor misconduct isn't a factor in every exoneration (ahout a quarter of them), and where it happens often other factors combine to produce error, much in the way that airline crashes are often found to result from a combination of events and seldom a single, fatal mistake.
And it should be mentioned that, despite Tarrant County's open-file policy, their prosecutors sometimes violate it, including in high-profile capital cases. Pride, perhaps, is warranted over their open-file policy, but hardly smugness nor conceit. If prosecutor misconduct only occurred in a quarter of Texas exonerations, does it makes sense to attribute the entire difference to that policy? After all, most exonerations come after an eyewitness erroneously identifies someone: How would an open-file policy prevent that?
Also, Sanders quoted stats on DNA requests which had been opposed by the DA's office and denied, implying all of them were false innocence claims. But he failed to point out that many of the Dallas exonerees - not to mention others like Michael Morton in Williamson County - had prosecutors successfully oppose testing for years before their innocence was proven. Indeed, that's why the Texas Legislature changed its post-conviction DNA testing statute last year to limit the grounds on which prosecutors may object to testing probative evidence. Just because the prosecution successfully opposed DNA testing under the old law doesn't mean that none of those cases would have resulted in exonerations. It just means the evidence hasn't been tested yet.
Finally, let's be clear: Even in Dallas only a small fraction of false convictions have been uncovered, as most of them have resulted from testing old DNA evidence. But probative DNA exists only in about 10% of violent crimes, meaning in 90% or so of such cases that avenue for exoneration is irrevocably closed. And in counties like Tarrant (and the rest of the state, besides Dallas) which did not retain most DNA evidence from old cases, the chances an innocent person might be exonerated decline even further because exculpatory evidence wasn't kept.
The number of DNA exonerations in recent years should not be viewed as a "total" but as a "sample," the way pollsters sample public opinion. They give us enough data to discuss causes of false convictions, but it's hubris to point to the mere absence of evidence and claim "the system works," which is the gist of Sanders' thesis.
Those interested in these debates should read Sanders' whole piece and Minora's retort. Between them they cover the ground pretty well, and I'm particularly pleased Minora did the followup so Grits didn't have to. :)