Thursday, May 07, 2009

Innocence legislation wending through process

It's the time of year at the Texas capitol that bills are dying left and right because they can't make it through the process in time. Bills originating in the House of Representatives, for example, are dead if they do not pass out of committee by Monday May 11 and the final House floor calendar including House bills (excepting local and consent) will be issued the next day. As such, there's a great deal of anxiety right now under the pink dome.

Fortunately, quite a bit of legislation I've been working on for the Innocence Project of Texas is still alive and variously wending its way through the process. I spent a long, grueling day a the capitol yesterday waiting for the House of Representatives to adjourn so the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee could hear several pieces of innocence-related legislation at a hearing that didn't start until 10 p.m.:
  • SB 116 by Ellis/Farrar which promotes recording custodial interrogations
  • SB 1976 by Whitmire/Gallego expanding post-conviction writ access in cases with discredited forensics
  • SB 1681 by Hinojosa/Gallego requiring corroboration for jailhouse informants
  • SB 1847 by Hegar/Moody letting exonerated inmates access the same services as parolees when they immediately leave prison.
I felt lucky my boss Jeff Blackburn and I made it out of the building before 1 a.m.; the poor folks waiting to hear SB 298 on DWI roadblocks (and there were a bunch of them) had to stay to the bitter end to testify, by all appearances mostly against the bill, though I didn't stay to listen to them (and neither, btw, did the bill sponsor).

Another important innocence-related bill, SB 117 (Ellis/Gallego), has already been heard and is awaiting action by the same committee. It would require law enforcement agencies to have written policies regarding eyewitness identification procedures, a reform that the Court of Criminal Appeals' Criminal Justice Integrity Unit said should be the highest legislative priority for preventing false convictions.

Meanwhile, HB 1736 (Anchia/Duncan), increasing compensation for exonerees, passed out of the Senate State Affairs Committee on Monday and will likely be heard on the Senate floor by the end of the week.

The fact that these bills are all being considered in the second chamber means they've got an excellent chance of passing in some form or fashion, though we won't necessarily know for another few weeks what that final form will be.

What's clear, though, from the support garnered by these bills so far, is that many folks at the Legislature now understand the parade of innocent men walking out of Texas prisons exonerated by DNA evidence should be a wake up call that a broken justice system needs their attention - not just because prisons are expensive but because some of the prisoners in them shouldn't be there.

Jeff Blackburn said it well to the committee last night testifying on SB 1976: The reason we've seen 39 DNA exonerations in Texas is because the Legislature passed a DNA-testing statute in 2001, not because the courts did their job or the system was working well. And it's folly to expect the justice system to improve further without additional legislative action.

Most of this legislation has been scaled back and compromised during the process, and none of these bills is a cure-all: The Lege can't just pass them and then go back to their districts to declare the problem of convicting innocent people "fixed." But I feel like the body - in both chambers - is taking the issue much more seriously this year than at any time in recent memory. As I told the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee (sometime after midnight) last night, I'm thankful for it.

UPDATE: This afternoon (5/7), SB 116, SB 117, SB 1976, and SB 1681 were all voted out of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.


FairPlay said...

I like the idea of having written procedures for eyewitness identification. A few years ago,I worked at a sheriff's department and was investigating a robbery in which the actor was wearing a ski mask. Our sheriff had the great idea of covering the entire face, except for the eyes, of the individuals who were in the photo lineup. Behold, the victim picked the right individual out of the photo lineup - the same individual who the sheriff thought committed the crime.

Of course the sheriff and the victim were the only ones in the room when this occurred. So who really knows what happend. I can see why written procedures are needed for such things.

Anonymous said...

What is our attitude towards innocence? Below is the list of women who claimed that Bill Clinton raped them or sexually assaulted or sexually abused them:

Eileen Wellstone was one of the first to report Bill Clinton

A 22-year-old woman told campus police at Yale University…

In 1972 19-year-old English woman reported that she was sexually assaulted by Clinton,

In 1974, a female student at the University of Arkansas claimed….

Broaddrick, a volunteer in Clinton's gubernatorial campaign, said he raped her in 1978

From 1978-1980, during Clinton's first term as governor of Arkansas, state troopers assigned to protect the governor were aware of at least seven complaints from women who said Clinton forced, or attempted to force, himself on them sexually.

Carolyn Moffet, a legal secretary in Little Rock in 1979 reported…

Elizabeth Ward, the Miss Arkansas reported…

Paula Corbin, an Arkansas state worker, filed a sexual harassment case against Clinton

Sandra Allen James, a former Washington, DC, political fundraiser….

Christy Zercher, a flight attendant on Clinton's leased campaign plane in 1992, says Presidential candidate Clinton exposed himself…

Kathleen Willey, a White House volunteer claimed...

Remember how Clinton was treated like a rock star when he came to Austin a few years ago? Remember how the press went after many of these women? What is our real attitude towards sexual assault?

Anonymous said...

We always admire the bad boy who gets away with things.

Also, there were probably some other women who kept quite and didn't come forward about old Bill.