Several legislators expressed astonishment that more exonerees aren't bitter and angry about what happened to them - Rep. Terry Canales said if he were falsely convicted of a terrible crime, he could be legitimately charged with arson upon exoneration because he'd want to "burn down the courthouse." To be certain, some of them do feel that way. But having had the privilege of working with exonerees for several years now in the course of my duties with the Innocence Project of Texas, the grace and aplomb exhibited by most no longer surprises me. Numerous exonerees have said the same thing to me when I've expressed similar views to Rep. Canales: They must forgive those who wronged them, for their own peace of mind. Holding on to anger harms the angry person more than it harms anger's targets, I've been told many times, which is a bit of hard-earned wisdom from which we could all benefit. The Lord's Prayer, an exoneree once told me, asks God to "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." He went on to add, though, that it took many years in prison before he realized that forgiveness was necessary for his own, personal tranquility. He could never be happy, never move on with his life, until he forgave those who wronged him. I've never forgotten that conversation and hope I never will. To me, that attitude represents the epitome of Christian charity at a depth so profound I can hardly fathom it.
Anyway, the committee was remarkably receptive to Rep. McLendon's bill. Here's an excerpt from YNN-Austin's coverage of the hearing:
Texas may lead the country with 47 post-conviction exonerations, but some legislators argue the Lone Star State needs to do more to ensure that innocent men and women aren’t sent to prison.Notably, the legislation enjoys bipartisan joint and co-authors, including Republicans Myra Crownover, Susan King, and Mike Leach, and Democrats Joe Moody and Terry Canales (Leach, Moody and Canales are all on the committee) and the members on the dais clearly were supportive of the idea. Chairman Abel Herrero was especially complimentary of bill author Ruth Jones-McLendon for bringing the legislation.
Lawmakers have proposed House Bill 166 to do just that. The bill would create the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Panel.
Named after Timothy Cole, a man who died in a Texas prison while serving time for a crime he did not commit, the commission would investigate the cause for wrongful convictions. It would then place prosecutors and judges under the spotlight.
“If it saves one person from going being incarcerated wrongfully in jail for one day, then it did its job," Rep. Terry Canales said.
Released from prison in 2008, Johnny Lindsey served 26 years for a rape the courts now know he didn't commit.
"Prosecutor misconduct, that is the thing that is causing all of these problems," Lindsey said.
Shannon Edmonds from the prosecutors' association spoke last and attempted to muddy the waters by implying that an innocence commission was unnecessary because it duplicates work by the innocence clinics at the four public law schools in Texas. Those comments, however, ignore reality. Yes, when exonerations result from work by innocence clinic students - as happened in four cases in 2012 - they are obliged by statute to write a report detailing the causes of the false convictions and suggest ways to prevent similar travesties of justice in the future. But the overwhelming majority of Texas exonerations have not come out of those clinics, but from the work of private lawyers, the Texas and national nonprofit Innocence Projects, reviews of old cases by the Dallas District Attorney, and other actors outside the clinics.
Shannon's point is well taken, though, that the work of an Innocence Commission would dovetail nicely with the work of the law-school innocence clinics, building on the work already being done. The Innocence Commission bill includes no money in its fiscal note, instead operating with administrative support from "the Legislative Budget Board, the University of Texas at Austin, and any other state agency able to assist the commission." It could also apply for grants and accept private donations. But if the innocence clinics receive the extra funding provided them in the Senate Finance Committee recommendations - which upped the clinics' budgets to $150,000 per year in their committee markup - it's possible they could assist an innocence commission in preparing similar reports for all innocence case as they're now doing for exonerations that come through their own labors.
Judging from reactions from the dais, the bill seems certain to pass out of committee. Last session the legislation died on the House floor on a more or less party line vote, but the bipartisan support evidenced in the committee and the bill authorship perhaps bodes well for a better outcome this time around.
Go here to watch the hearing on the bill for yourself. It begins at about the 47:00 minute mark.
MORE: See additional coverage from the Austin Chronicle and the Dallas Morning News.