Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Legislators learn about forgiveness, justice at hearing on innocence commission bill

Grits spent much of yesterday at the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, which heard legislation calling for creation of an Innocence Commission to study the causes of wrongful convictions. As in the past when this bill has come up, several Texas exonerees testified in favor of the legislation, offering up powerful narratives of injustice that the committee clearly found moving and compelling.

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.

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.
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if this commission might ultimately just be a "feel good" measure to give the Legislature some comfort that they are addressing the problem of wrongful convictions. The fact of the matter is that we already know what causes wrongful convictions. And we've known for some time. Bad eyewitness identifications, ineffective assistance of counsel for indigent defendants (either at trial or on appeal), gaps in the criminal discovery laws, shoddy forensics, tunnel vision by law enforcement or prosecutors, lack of funding for crime labs, congested court dockets, burdensome caseloads...I'm sure you can name others. I bet if you look back at all of those exonerations you would find that one or more of these factors contributed to every wrongful conviction---including the Tim Cole conviction (tainted eyewitness ID). I don't think we need some new bureaucracy to tell us what needs to be done to solve these problems. To a degree, some improvements have already been implemented in the last decade or two to address these problems. See, e.g., eyewitness identification legislation, legislation requiring corroboration of testimony of confidential informants, legislation requiring patrol car videos, more post-conviction DNA testing. The common denominator, however, is that all or most of these improvements depend on resources. If the Legislature truly wants to reduce the number of wrongful convictions, they need to open up their pocketbooks and increase funding for indigent defense, more trial and appellate courts, more and better crime labs and forensic testing, and better training for law enforcement and prosecutors. I'm afraid this commission, while well intentioned, just gets the Legislature off the hook from having to make the harder decisions regarding the budget and spending more money to drastically improve the system across the board. Hell, if they're not even willing to spend the money to fund this commission, that pretty much tells me all I need to know about their willingness to really address the problems that everyone already knows exist.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, on behalf of the VOTS (victims of the system), and sometimes on behalf of taxpayers and humans of all shades / sizes and political affiliations - thank you for taking time to attend and report back.

*It's been my experience to witness the majority of the folks saying they forgive and don't have any bitterness being the newly created minority of claimants’ referred to as the exonerated. Stick a mic in front of the un-exonerated and you won’t be getting any candy coated bible lessons or scriptures. But, whatever makes one sleep better is part of the healing process.

NOTE: when the Judge took me into his chambers in order for me to adhere to being advised to stop the jury trial and change my plea to nolo contendere - "Guilty or Not, you are going to prison just for being on probation at time of arrest on a new un related charge." The first & last thing I saw was a: Bible, Crosses & Angels in every direction. And, a demonic look in his eyes I’ll never forget as he barked for me to shut up, quit wasting his time & sign the papers. Doing so, a millisecond after I said, Yes, I have only one thing to say, if it’s the last thing I do it’ll be to prove I’m Not Guilty.

Despite doing exactly what I promised, No DNA, No Death Row & No direct appeals being exhausted -equals no exoneration for you. Can I get an Amen. I’d settle for another logic101 with a dab of brutha pleeeze. Forgive me for having difficulties forgiving any of those shown to be documented as knowingly & willingly participating in my railroading at this time.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Speaking strictly as one of the un-exoneratables (due to being in the Non-DNA, Non-Death Row, Didn't exhaust all direct appeals sub-class of humans) I ask, *will this commission simply examine the known causes of wrongful convictions of the ‘exonerated’? If yes, I guess I’m supposed to be happy it’s a start in the right direction.

Re: "It would then place prosecutors and judges under the spotlight." Any spotlight that doesn't include shining down the throats of the Defense Team and on to the pages of the arresting agencies Incident Reports & subsequent detective’s investigation supplemental reports is - Cherry Picking and assumes that the causes are the Judges & Prosecutors alone.

Mr. Johnny Lindsey said that “Prosecutors misconduct, that is the thing that is causing all of these problems”. While from the heart and passionate due to his travesty, I can tell you from direct experience, that he misspoke by not including the fact that the problem(s) begin at the moment of arrest. It truly takes a team effort to allow a verifiable false arrest to morph into a wrongful conviction. Thanks

Audrey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Audrey said...

I have to agree with Thomas Griffith on this, the problems start at the point of arrest or in my case the false accusations. The system is broken and unless someone has money or a clear cut DNA case they are out of luck.

On the subject of forgiveness, I asked a visiting pastor, while in prison for a wrongful conviction, if a person could forgive but continue, in earnest, the appeal process. She said yes, just work the appeal process, void of the anger. As a result I believed I had forgiven, but I will have to admit....Every time I revisit my case for any reason, the anger flares up agaiin. I do wonder, without exoneration, if one can ever get real closure.