Sunday, September 09, 2007

Possibly innocent defendants languish for lack of state Innocence Commission

Today's Sunday papers include two articles that, taken together, cast a dark shadow of shame over the Texas Legislature's failure to pass significant bills in 2007 to reduce or remedy wrongful convictions.

From the Houston Chronicle, Roma Khanna and Steve McVicker report "Legal help scarce in HPD crime lab cases." Disgracefully, "nearly two-thirds of defendants convicted with faulty evidence have received little help in determining how, or if, their convictions could be affected." Many people convicted with shabby crime lab analyses were never notified that evidence in their case had been invalidated.

Uh ... why?

The short answer may be found in another item today from Max Baker at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "Former inmates seek innocence commission": The Legislature and most DAs have failed to establish mechanisms to review possible innocence cases.

Except in Dallas, where the new DA has partnered with the Texas Tech innocence project to systematically review DNA evidence, there is no structural way for authorities to review these old cases once a conviction is final. Anthony Robinson, who spent ten years in TDCJ wrongfully convicted of rape, told innocence project volunteers at a training in Fort Worth that
six other states have established innocence commissions. Since Texas has one of the nation's largest prison systems and routinely puts inmates to death, Robinson said he doesn't understand why Texas doesn't have a similar agency. ...

"If Texas is to remain great, we need to step up and fight the good fight," Robinson said. "This is not a set of isolated incidents. There have been a lot of bitter tears shed."

The state bears responsibility for wrongful convictions, and rooting them out should be a state function, not left to volunteers and happenstance. The failure of revelations from the Houston crime lab to result in affected cases being re-examined, in my mind, can only stem from utter incompetence or a profound indifference. Sadly, I don't think the Harris County DA is incompetent.

With the Texas Legislature, of course, the question of incompetence vs. indifference isn't as clear - indeed, it could always be both.

Legislation to create an "innocence commission" in Texas to do just that died in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee this spring, even though all but two of the nine committee members claimed to support it. As we discussed ad nauseum during session, Chairman Aaron Peña held the bill till the committee's final meeting, then brought it up for a vote when supporters were out of the room.

Peña has said that failure was unintentional, and maybe so. But compared to the way he hustled through bills expanding local wiretap authority and making it easier to convict innocent people of sex crimes, not to mention the fact that as chairman Peña authored no innocence-related bills of his own, one may certainly conclude the Democrat failed to prioritize the problem of wrongful convictions, an omission that threatens to undermine the integrity of the whole system in the eyes of the public.

I'm glad to see innocence commission supporters beginning their efforts now to promote this critical reform. In addition, something needs to happen to mandate improving eyewitness identification procedures used by police - hopefully starting with a legislative interim study.

In days past, American jurisprudence prided itself on the notion that it was better to let ten guilty men go free than to incarcerate an innocent one. The idea that the legal system hasn't examined 2/3 of the faulty Houston crime lab cases ... indeed, that prosecutors didn't even notify the defendants! ... tells me those values in practice are disdained or defenestrated.


Anonymous said...

Surely you jest, Scott. We don't incarcerate innocent people in the state of Texas...or so it would seem. Innocence Commission? To have a commission such as this would admit that maybe, just maybe we have innocent people locked up in Texas. My the mere title it would appear that judges make mistakes, prosecutors make mistakes and lazy court-appointed attorneys don't care enough to fight the good fight. Add to this a Court of Appeals that has a rubber stamp saying no and an innocent prisoner is doomed from the moment he or she is arrested. Courtrooms have become political arenas for re-election campaigns, often at the cost of an innocent person. Amazingly enough, we wouldn't need so many "innocence" groups if the state of Texas would do their job. If the judges, prosecutors and court appointed attorneys had a shred of decency in them they would not allow a human life to be swallowed up as they rot in a prison cell. Innocence Commission? Please post it when they convene, when they do something even remotely close to looking at hard evidence. When this illustrious commission releases the first innocent prisoner in Texas we will have witnessed the miracle or miracles. Do you think they are afraid to open that door? I certainly do.

Don said...

Well said, outspoken woman. It's all about W's and L's. Prosecutors and judges are politicians, and therein lies the problem. We need Public Defender Offices, everywhere. Maybe a state wide office. The founding fathers meant for the deck to be stacked in favor of the defendant, not the other way around. The Constitution has been scrapped in favor of "tuff on crime" politics. The amazing thing is that judges and prosecutors don't really deny that they do what they do. They just don't see anything wrong with it. I don't know which is worse.