Thursday, May 08, 2008

Innocence summit drew officials, opinion leaders from around the state

I attended this afternoon an interesting "summit" on innocence and wrongful convictions in the Senate chamber at the Texas capitol. (UPDATE: See Part Two)

I was a bit annoyed when I was told bloggers couldn't go onto the Senate floor because we're not real journalists, so I didn't get to take the photos I'd hope to get. (That crap really needs to change next session - in all modesty, this blog reports circles around some of the reporters who had credentials to get on the floor.) But even from my perch in the gallery, the discussion was awfully interesting.

Nine exonerated men were on the dais along with Senators Rodney Ellis, John Whtimre, Bob Deuell, and other notables. There were reps from the criminal defense lawyers and the prosecutors lobby, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, the Innocence Project of Texas, the Governor's office, two judges from the Court of Criminal Appeals, several members of the House of Representatives, a police union rep, and several DAs and police chiefs, mostly from larger cities.

I was particularly impressed with commentary from James Lee Woodard, a writ writer who spent his entire 27 years wrongfully incarcerated trying to get courts to hear his innocence claims. He suggested that judges needed to look at prisoner writs with a more open mind, and that "jail mail" shouldn't just be dismissed out of hand. Quite a few folks in the room were people who Woodard had personally written about his plight but from whom he never heard a response.

Alejandro Herndandez, an innocent man who spent 13 years for a crime he didn't commit in El Paso, emphasized that in most cases no DNA existed to be tested, and that efforts to discover "innocence" needs to look beyond those cases with available DNA, which are increasingly few and far between.

Hernandez also echoed a call from Brandon Moon, another writ writer freed after 17 years incarcerated for a rape he didn't commit, also from El Paso. Three years ago Moon told a Senate committee that prisoners needed greater access to public records via open records requests in order to get a chance to prove their innocence. Legislators have balked in the past for fear open records requests wold be abused, but denying information to actually innocent inmates clearly inhibits their ability to prove up their defense.

Finally, Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Barbara Hervey said she intends to request more money during the next legislative session to pay for grants for innocence related trainings, and to my surprise declared the court is interested in pursuing either statutory or court-ordered changes in eyewitness ID methodologies, which account for the lion's share of wrongful convictions identified through DNA testing. She also wants an inspection team created to do surprise visits to state and local crimes labs to root out ongoing problems with shoddy forensic science.

I was encouraged so many opinion leaders were there from across the political spectrum, and representing a wide array of interests that are frequently at odds. There is room for consensus on some of these questions, if participants coming at the topic from different angles can each set aside their parochialism and actually look for solutions instead of ways to block them.

UPDATE: See more coverage from AP , The Houston Chronicle, and the Fort Worth Star Telegram.

BLOGVERSATION: Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice is offended on my behalf that Texas bloggers don't qualify for capitol press passes, lamenting "the fact that he types articles that never kill trees renders him less important than the kid from the Podunk Gazette, readership 278." (For the record, according to SiteMeter, Grits had just over 62,000 visitors last month, averaging more than 2,000 visitors per day.) Muchas gracias, Scott, for the supportive commentary.


Anonymous said...


They may think that you're not a "real journalist," but I'm sure that most state officials around Texas are always wondering which one of them are going to end up on your blog when they go crooked and you print the facts.

We need more bloggers like yourself that don't have ties with the "corporate media." I learn more about Texas politics from your blog in a day then I do in a month from reading a newspaper or watching the news on T.V.

Keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

I have twice been a victim of gun violence by a stranger, and both times my eyes were fixed on the weapon. I wouldn't have been able to ID either criminal except that both times the bad guy ended up getting his face busted up.

The first time the crime was actually witnessed by two policemen who were a little extra rough in apprehending the guy. The second time he turned his back and I got the chance to do the honors myself.

But like I said, the fear is so intense, the adrenaline. You don't really know what is happening. I could have identified the weapon but not the criminals if not for swollen black eyes, busted lips, and abrasions on the face.

Amerloc said...

You're absolutely right about your writing circles around the "journalists." You should have been in camera range, especially for this hearing.

But what triggered my typing-finger was "Legislators have balked in the past for fear open records requests wold be abused."

What legislation ever passed, what order ever written, hasn't been abused by someone who figured out a way to take advantage?!?!?! That's no damned excuse for not taking a step in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

Grits, I think the exclusion of bloggers has been successfully contested. I don't remember where I read that, perhaps in the NY Times not too long ago. A reporter is a reporter regardless of blog, newspaper, TV, etc.

I don't think your exclusion from the Senate floor is constitutionally valid.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

John, the Texas House and Senate create their own rules at the beginning of each session regarding who qualifies for press passes, and last year after a debate in the House they decided to exclude bloggers, so I don't know that a constitutional interpretation by an out of state court would necessarily apply.

That said, there are about half as many credentialed reporters at the capitol as 15 years ago, so I really see no justification for excluding bloggers.

I should clarify that I didn't apply for press credentials for this event (because the decision on the rules was already made last year) and was really just hoping that, since it was more a PR event than a formal legislative hearing, I could talk my way onto the floor to take photos. No dice, though. I only mentioned it because it made me grumpy, not because I think they had no justification to turn me away.

That said, I'm going to apply for the 81st session and make a stink about it, though, there's really no justification for the rule.

Anonymous said...

Will the next wave of DNA exonerations, or reversals, be due to the 'Prosecutor's fallacy'?

Appeals court tosses rape conviction, criticizes scientist's DNA testimony

Anonymous said...

You weren't excluded from the Chamber, were you? What's the BFD? You heard the testimony from the upper deck. Whats the big deal? Youi didn't get on the floor?


Anonymous said...

Excluding bloggers demonstrates how out of step with their constituencies our elected reps are. They know 'real' reporters on the floor will report their sputum in copious amounts between quote marks, while the bloggers might actually asked hard questions based on observation.

You're right -- there are far fewer reporters at the capitol now. Used to be, every paper had one, and big papers had several reporters. Now, one reporter feeds several papers, so that if a reporter is stupid, or gets too friendly with one side or the other, even more of the state is less well informed.

Keep it up, Scott,


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Plato, I was just hoping to get photos for y'all, that's all.

Anonymous said...

You can get plenty of photos of Plato/Whitmire (wide angle for the ego) from media services.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Ha! The only thing Plato and Whitmire have in common is they've both been around, seemingly, since Reconstruction! ;)

I was more interested in photos of the nine exonerees, and some of the other attendees.

Anonymous said...

Scott - with such a large group of lefties congregating there in Austin yesterday, did ya'all gather on the Capital steps and sing L'Internationale?


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Plato, that's rich coming from someone who was probably alive when the tune was written. ;)

Truth be told, very little I've witnessed at the Texas state capitol would inspire me to break into a song that includes the line, "Reason in revolt now thunders, and at last ends the age of cant." It's just not that kind of scene - "cant" is still very much in vogue. :)

Actually the most remarkable thing about yesterday's event was that most of the participants weren't lefties. Just a few names from my notes:

DA's - Barry Macha from Wichita Falls, David Weeks from Huntsville, Craig Watkins from Dallas, Rosemary Lehmberg (who just won Ronnie Earle's seat in Austin and will be the new DA in January) and Shannon Edmonds, the TDCAA lobbyist.

Cops: Austin PD's chief had a commander there, and Chief Harold Hurtt was from Houston. Only one of the two big police union groups had a particpant: Tom Gaylor was there from TMPA but I didn't see anybody from CLEAT. (They oppose all this stuff anyway, I guess.)

Judges: Barbara Hervey and Cheryl Johnson from the CCA were both front and center, as was Jim Bethke from the indigent defense task force that they fund.

Even Rissie Owens, the head of the parole board, was there; I'd even go so far as to say she appeared attentive!

Thankfully Ellis seems to know he can't pass any bills on this stuff without wide support, and that seemed to be a big part of his reason for bringing this rather unlikely bunch together.