Monday, May 12, 2008

Dallas News backs innocence commission

Reacting to last week's "Innocence Summit" (see Grits coverage here and here), the Dallas News on Sunday editorialized in favor of the state of Texas creating and "innocence commission," an idea that I think has merit but which is also vague enough to become a mere do-nothing PR stunt if it's not given sufficient authority.

The News editorial focused on stories of the nine exonerees in attendance at the event, who collectively spent more than 161 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit. Said the News' editorial board:

Some told their stories with passion and resolve, others with sadness. The facts chill to the bone. They reveal how scant or sketchy evidence, faulty witness identification, faulty forensics and gamesmanship by prosecutors helped railroad innocent people – and let the guilty get away.

"It was a nightmare," said Mr. McGowan, erroneously picked out of a photo lineup by a rape victim in Richardson in 1985. "It could happen to your kids; it could happen to you."

Lawmakers in Texas must do something about that ghastly possibility. Eight lawmakers were in the audience Thursday to hear the testimonials of the exonerated men. Also attending were legal experts, judges, police brass and other law enforcement officials.

They gathered at the invitation of Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston, who has championed the forMation of a state innocence commission to dissect cases of exonerated people and recommend ways to improve the system. The concept is a sound one and has been adopted by at least five states.

It's needed badly in Texas, which has 33 DNA-established exonerations to date, more than any other state. Seventeen are from Dallas County, more than in any other U.S. county.

News flashes about Dallas cases obscure the fact that local exonerations would not be achieved were it not for the sound practice of storing biological evidence in all criminal cases. No other Texas county has done that; one can only imagine how many wrongly convicted people from the 253 other Texas counties have no shot at DNA exoneration. A special commission could recommend best practices for evidence storage, among a long list of other law enforcement procedures.

To be effective, an Innocence Commission needs authority to do more than just make recommendations, but should have the power to review possible wrongful convictions independently, especially where scientific advances or other evidence cast doubt on whole classes of older final convictions. There needs to be some vehicle for innocent people whose cases are examined to actually be released if they didn't commit the crime.

For example, I've been writing about arson cases and how many past convictions were based on flawed forensic evidence that's since been disproven, including one death penalty case where the defendant was executed. These cases may be among the best reasons for creating an innocence commission - with arson we find a class of hundreds of cases that all need to be vetted because of new scientific advancements casting many old convictions in doubt. There's no procedure in existing law for handling that problem.

Last year legislation to create an innocence commission was killed by Democrats in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee after passing out of the Republican controlled Texas Senate. The Chair of that committee, Tom Craddick ally Rep. Aaron Peña, was noticeably absent from last week's innocence summit, so it's hard to say whether his committee will be any more receptive to the idea in 2009.

If an innocence commission would have teeth and power to investigate old cases, I think it could be a great idea. If it's going to become a watered down entity that only makes recommendations, though, there are plenty of substantive procedural reforms - including improving eyewitness ID procedures, recording interrogations, giving prisoners limited open records access, and improving access to the courts for writ writers - that could more effectively prevent or correct wrongful convictions.

BLOGVERSATION: Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice says every criminal case needs an "innocence commission of one," with the judge as the "innocence commissioner." I don't think that's how Texas judges tend to view their jobs, certainly at the highest appellate levels.

1 comment:

kbp said...

Great idea, but...

As a result of the turmoil from the Duke case, North Carolina was trying to portray itself as a leader in an effort to protect the innocent by establishing a program with a committee to look over questionable convictions.

Great cover in the press, but any that could goggle or wiki on the one they put in charge of it saw that it was not really going to help solve anything.

Voices like yours are important. Watch to see the details of how any committee is selected, the who, how...

Not sure how things are in Texas, but in Durham, NC, the DA is in charge of the court schedules, meaning THEY determined when a case came up so it was in front of the judge of their choice. That meant the DA's could control which cases a judge had, making or breaking their careers. Still is that way.

Just another problem to look into.