Thursday, April 02, 2009

Exoneree testimony is powerful stuff

I spent all day yesterday at the Texas capitol on behalf of the Innocence Project of Texas prior to and during a lengthy House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee hearing in which testimony was heard regarding several key innocence-related bills, most notably eyewitness ID and compensation for false convictions (see coverage from AP).

Committee Chair Pete Gallego sponsored the House version of the main eyewitness ID bill this session (SB 117/HB 3583), and he substituted agreed language from the Senate, avoiding what was shaping up before session to be a big catfight over that legislation. The compromise will require police departments to create policies that comply with a model policy that will be created by the Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas (LEMIT) at Sam Houston State University.

The Dallas DA's office argued - rightfully, IMO - that the bill would be more effective if it required a jury instruction when police didn't comply. But politics is the art of compromise, and since 88% of Texas law enforcement agencies have no written policy on the subject, requiring one is a good first step. (The bill is much stronger than the eyewitness ID bill that died in the House Calendars Committee in 2007.)

Especially impressive, for the second day in a row, was the showing by Texas' DNA exonerees, who accounted for themselves admirably in testimony about eyewitness ID and compensating those who'd been false convictions. Cory Session and his mother, Ruby Cole-Session - the brother and mother respectively of the late and lately exonerated Timothy Cole - were there, too, and Mr. Session continued to earn himself a reputation as quite an orator.

I've gotta tell you, one of the treats of getting to work for the Innocence Project of Texas this session has been watching the exonerees get plugged into the legislative process, testify at hearings, and participate in a lobby day in February where they did dozens of office visits. I couldn't be more proud of them; it's been a privilege and an honor to be around these guys, if sometimes emotionally overwhelming.

When I give testimony at the Lege, I prepare a little outline or list of talking points on whatever bill we're addressing, but when these guys give testimony, it's like testimony in church, as in, "This is my testimony, what I learned from the still, small voice that spoke to me at my darkest hour during years of sadness and isolation."

Every one of these exonerated men is like a novel, or perhaps an epic poem, unto himself. (John Grisham recognized that.) Some of them - James Waller comes to mind - have lived out tragedies Shakespeare couldn't fantasize, both during and after their incarceration, but still have enough faith in the system to come to Austin and confront the people who made the laws that wrongly took their lives away because they believe telling their stories can make a difference.

And I'll be damned if it doesn't. I don't care how jaded you are, you can't listen to such stories and not be moved. Here's the video link to watch testimony on the first couple of bills heard by the committee (technically the first three bills), for a taste of what I'm talking about. It's not a quickie - probably a couple of hours to hear all the testimony on the eyewitness and compensation legislation - but well worth watching. Be sure to grab a box of Kleenex before you hit "Play."

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