Sunday, January 07, 2007

Nuther Dallas exoneration points to need for eyewitness reforms

The new Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins is wasting little time demonstrating how his tenure may differ from his predecessors.

Already his new first assistant has announced plans to create an "open file" rule like the one in Tarrant County, and now he's reversed former DA Bill Hill's policy of opposing defense motions for possibly exonerating DNA tests, reports Glenna Whitley at Unfair Park. In the first instance where the latter policy was exercised, it helped overturn yet another wrongful conviction last week, the eleventh in Dallas based on DNA tests in recent years:

On Wednesday, DNA testing exonerated Andrew Gossett of Garland, who had been serving a 50-year sentence for a 1999 sexual assault he didn’t commit. Within 24 hours, Gossett was in a courtroom shaking hands with new Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, who apologized and told Gossett his office would work on his application for a pardon and monetary compensation. Gossett, 46, walked out a free man.

“The new D.A.’s office gets credit for that,” says attorney Bruce Anton, who handled Gossett’s appeal. He was amazed at how fast his client was released. “Craig Watkins was there to speed up the process. I think the change in command makes all the difference in the world.”

The office under former District Attorney Bill Hill repeatedly fought against post-conviction requests for DNA tests, even if inmates were willing to pay for the tests out of their own pockets.
Bully for Watkins for getting out in front of the issue and taking responsibility for his office's past mistakes. But what can be done to prevent future ones?

Whitley quotes Vanessa Potkin, chief counsel of The Innocence Project at Cardozo Law School, who points out that “no other county in the country beats Dallas. It’s a county that beats out most states in the country. It’s an indication of a system that needs reform.”

"So why is Dallas having such staggering numbers of the innocent put in prison?," queries Whitley. "One clue: Potkin says that almost all of those exonerated were convicted with eyewitness testimony that proved to be wrong. 'And these cases are recent, not from the ’80s,' she says."

Bingo! What's more, that's a problem everywhere in the state, not just Dallas.

In the past Grits has suggested several methods for improving the quality of eyewitness testimony in criminal cases:
These are all reforms that could be implemented locally, but since the problems occur statewide, IMO the Texas Legislature should act to ensure equal justice across the board.

See more on best practices regarding eyewitness identification from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

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