Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Impressive Innocence Lineup Testifies at Senate Criminal Justice Committee

New York Innocence Project lawyer Barry Scheck showed up at the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee this morning with four men who'd been wrongfully convicted and exonerated later by DNA evidence:
  • James Giles: Exonerated yesterday after spending ten years in prison and years more registered as a sex offender for a crime he didn't commit.
  • James Waller: Exonerated earlier this year after spending ten years in prison based on faulty eyewitness testimony. He was wrongfully convicted for raping a child, an offense punished more harshly as part of Jessica's Law this session.
  • Chris Ochoa: Convicted based on a false confession, Chistopher Ochoa used his $5.3 million settlement from the City of Austin to go to law school. Scheck pointed out that Ochoa participated in debates at the Lege six years ago that led to the establishment of post-conviction DNA testing and innocence compensation in Texas.
  • Brandon Moon: Spent more than 17 years wrongfully incarcerated for rape. He became a writ writer while inside and two years ago suggested giving prisoners open records access would be an important innocence reform.
Sen. Rodney Ellis said that the compensation bill as substituted would double the current amount from the state to the federal level of $50,000 per year, but death row offenders deemed innocent would get $100,000 per year wrongfully incarcerated. He'd made other concessions, he said, so that prosecutors would cease to oppose it. He also mentioned that the entity established to recommend eyewitness identification procedures would recommend language for future legislation - that wasn't clear to me from the original draft, but it sounds like it'll be in the substitute.

Grits previewed these bills earlier. You can listen to these wrongfully convicted men tell in their own words why they support them - here's video of the committee hearing from this morning. The committee reconvened briefly this afternoon and all three bills were voted out favorably to the full Senate.

UPDATE: See initial MSM coverage from AP and Texas Politics.

1 comment:

AlanBean said...

Findings of actual innocence are generally a result of DNA testing. The Tulia situation is an aberration; it was never demonstrated that Tom Coleman never told the truth about the Tulia defendants--only that he was not a credible witness. Apart from the media firestorm surrounding these cases not a penny of compensation would have been paid, nor would the defendants have been released in the first place.

The vast majority of criminal defendants have a devil of a time proving actual innocence because there is no DNA smoking gun. But if DNA testing has demonstrated that defendants are often wrongfully convicted in capital cases there is no reason to believe that mistakes are often made in non-capital cases. In fact, the likelihood of wrongful conviction is much higher in the routine narcotics case because they are usually resolved in a "Let's Make a Deal" scenario in which a prosecutor tells the defendant (usually through the auspices of an overworked and underpaid court appointed attorney) that he can take the plea offer or try to become one of the 3-5% of defendants who escape conviction in a jury trial. Since the chances of acquittal at trial are about the same as a Deal or No Deal contestant picking the suitcase containing $1 million, it isn't surprising that a lot of innocent defendants take the plea offer.

Unfortunately, there isn't an innocence project in the land that can help these people. Criminal defendants looking for pre-trial assistance from civil rights organizations, attorneys or the media are generally out of luck. No one provides pre-trial intervention . . . except court appointed attorneys.

Once a narcotics defendant is convicted they must abandon hope unless they can provide some evidence of innocence. This almost never happens.

Civil rights groups need to develop strategies for assisting defendants before they are convicted. Rarely will it be possible to prove actual innocence. But Tulia demonstrates that when enough people protest the promiscuous use of uncorroborated eyewitness testimony the criminal justice system can be embarrassed into providing justice.