The Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions was a one-time task force charged with making recommendations to reduce false convictions in the wake of the posthumous exoneration of Tim Cole as well as dozens of other Texas men declared innocent of serious felonies after post-conviction DNA testing. See their report (pdf). One often hears that panel made eleven recommendations, but really it was fewer than that. For example, five of them related to eyewitness identification standards, all of which were addressed in just one bill. Consolidated, the group effectively proposed six different legislative solutions:
- Eyewitness ID reform
- Recording custodial interrogations
- Discovery reform
- Expand access to post-conviction DNA testing
- Clarify standard for adjudicating junk-science habeas claims
- Fund staff at law-school innocence clinics instead of an innocence commission
Assuming Governor Perry approves these latest bills - and he's been supportive of past legislation based on Tim Cole Advisory Panel recommendations - the final major unresolved item from the list for next session will be requiring police to record interrogations in the most serious offenses. This year a bill to that effect was voted out of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee but, like a great deal of criminal-justice reform legislation, never received a vote on the House floor. The police chiefs' association says smaller departments can't afford it and until now my response has been that if they can't afford a recording device the department isn't big enough to handle rape and murder investigations. But that argument hasn't moved the needle so next session I've got my eye on a pot of untapped money that could perhaps be used for one-time recording equipment purchases, in much the same way the state used bond money to pay for dashcams in local police cars back in 2001. Recording equipment is cheap these days, it wouldn't take much.
Still, considering the Legislature created the Tim Cole Advisory Panel in 2009 (the same year it increased compensation for exonerees to become the most generous in the nation) and this is only the second session since its recommendations came out, five out of six isn't a bad ratio. There's more to be done, no doubt, and these measures represent modest first steps toward reform, not its culmination. But to outline half a dozen significant legislative suggestions and see five of them enacted in just two sessions is pretty darn impressive.