Thursday, April 30, 2015

Bills to prevent, cause false convictions on House floor today

Ironically, there are bills on the Texas House floor calendar today (Thursday) aimed both at preventing false convictions and guaranteeing more of them.

RE: Preventing False Convictions. HB 48 by Ruth McLendon would create an Innocence Commission to analyze the causes of false convictions and suggest legislative reforms to prevent them in the future. The Lege once before created a short-term study commission but has enacted nearly all the reforms they suggested. Time for a fresh look. The House has supported this bipartisan idea in the past; the Senate is where it ran into trouble. See a Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial in favor of the bill.

RE: Ensuring More False Convictions. HB 189 by Senfronia Thompson would remove the statute of limitations on all sexual assault cases, allowing, say, a date rape allegation from decades past to be sufficient to secure a conviction. Presently, old cases can be prosecuted when there is biological evidence to support the allegation. Thompson's bill would eliminate those fetters even for uncorroborated allegations going forward. (They can only change it for future cases, thankfully, not past ones.) The suggestion came from the Wendy Davis gubernatorial campaign, though Thompson now likes to downplay its origins and her staff is referring to the legislation as the Bill Cosby Act. Really it's the Wendy Davis Campaign Memorial Bad Idea.

Thompson's bill especially bugs me because she did not follow through on the compromise the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee was told would be made in the committee substitute. The committee was informed the substitute would only expand the SOL for cases where biological evidence existed, simply adding an absent category of sexual assault not included in the language now, but requiring DNA to prosecute very old cases. But that's not the version voted out of committee, which simply removes the statute of limitations entirely.

The version of HB 189 headed to the floor is a goddawful bill that's virtually guaranteed to produce more false and questionable convictions in the future. Honestly, after witnessing dozens of men falsely convicted of rape streaming through the capitol over the years in support of Rep. McLendon's bill and other innocence reforms, Rep. Thompson should know better.

Regrettably, McLendon's bill can't pass quickly enough for a commission to recommend that Thompson's bill is a catastrophe from an innocence perspective. House members will have to figure it out on their own for this bad idea to be rejected. And it should be.

UPDATE: The House Research Organization report, released today, brings this addendum:
The author plans to offer a floor amendment that would change the statute of limitation only for certain sexual assault cases involving multiple victims. Under the planned amendment, there would be no statute of limitation if there were probable cause to believe the defendant repeatedly committed the same or similar offense against five or more victims.
That at least would limit the bill's scope, but it's still not an intellectually consistent policy. Better if HB 189 were simply voted down altogether.

NUTHER UPDATE: I didn't get to watch the floor debate but, as amended, the bill passed by a relatively narrow 88-46 vote. All "nay" votes were Republican.


Anonymous said...

I agree with Grits. SOLs are there for a reason and an accusation about an alleged ancient incident would be horribly hard to defend. The presence of DNA evidence would seem to be an reasonable middle ground.

Prison Doc

Anonymous said...

A minor observation...the legislature can change the statute of limitations for past cases if the statute of limitations has not already lapsed for that particular offense. So any case where the statute hasn't lapsed under current law as of the effective date of the statute would be transformed into a no limitations case. They don't have to do this, but they can, and in this bill, they did. See Section 2 of the bill text.

Crim. Def. Att.

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