Monday, June 01, 2009

Embarrassing: Lege ensures more false convictions with 81st session failures

After all the fawning over Timothy Cole's family and public declarations throughout the 81st Texas Legislature that the state would act to prevent false convictions, all the major innocence-related policy reforms proposed this year died in the session's waning hours with the exception of one bill requiring corroboration for jailhouse informants.

Two other pieces of legislation for a brief moment had passed both chambers on Friday as amendments to HB 498, but after a 110-28 record vote approved the measure, Rep. Carl Isett moved to reconsider the bill and it was sent to a conference committee, where the amendments were stripped off for germaneness.

Sen. Rodney Ellis earlier in the day had requested the House appoint a conference committee and approve a resolution to "go outside the bounds" to consider eyewitness ID, but that resolution never came and instead the bill was denuded of all policy substance to become a bill to study whether to study the causes of false convictions.

We didn't need more study by the Legislature on this issue, we needed action. Eyewitness ID errors make up 80% of DNA exoneration cases and the Court of Criminal Appeals' Criminal Justice Integrity Unit said it should be the Legislature's highest priority for preventing false convictions. But unless the issue is added to a call in a special session, at least two more years will pass before the Lege can begin to rectify the problem.

That's inexcusable. It's not okay for the Legislature to know that innocent people are being convicted under the statutes they've written and simply decline to prevent it.

The science on eyewitness ID is strong enough to where, if it can't be done legislatively, IMO it's incumbent on the courts to do it (even if the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals as currently constituted seems likely not up to the task). This isn't a "when we get around to it" kind of deal; the risk of false identification is significant every time old, outdated techniques are used, which is dozens of times per day statewide. So given the volume of lineups performed, it's a certainty there will be more false convictions in Texas in the future because the Lege failed to act.

Ironically, while ignoring most legislation on the causes of false convictions, the Lege did pass and the Governor signed HB 1736 increasing payments to exonerees, even as, by their own inaction, they ensured there will be many more of them.

The only bill passed aimed at preventing false convictions was a modest proposal to require corroboration for testimony by jailhouse snitches (SB 1681 by Hinojosa), something prosecutors insisted usually happens anyway. (A more ambitious bill regulating informant use, SB 260, never even received a hearing.) Otherwise, innocence legislation killed by the voter ID debacle included:
  • Recording custodial interrogations (SB 116)
  • Expanding access to writs in cases of discredited science (SB 1964)
  • Restricting reasons judges can deny postconviction DNA tests (SB 1864)
This represented a failure of leadership on all sides. Voter ID was the flavor of the session and by the end, MANY different factions of legislators had decided their stance on that was more important than preventing false convictions.

Senate Republicans sent that message when they overrode traditional practices to exclude the voter ID bill from the 2/3 rule. Voter ID was the most important issue in the state, they crowed, though it's notable none of them ever made that statement to anyone from Timothy Cole's family, who were up at the capitol many times throughout session asking the Lege to approve reforms.

The Speaker and the Calendars Committee sent the same message when they placed voter ID on the Major State calendar ahead of critical innocence reforms, even though they knew a fight was brewing. And House Democrats chubbed away caring more about their vote margins at election time than the fate of innocent people in the justice system.

These bills would have been modest first steps, not a cure-all, but now even those first efforts will be delayed because most people at the Texas Lege are too preoccupied with electoral navel gazing and tit for tat partisanship. Embarrassing. And angering.

MORE: From the Lubbock Avalanche Journal, "Wrongful conviction bills die."


Anonymous said...

Boo hoo, grits. You got caught with your pants down.

The truth is that you are trying to manipulate the passage of a law by pointing the finger at police practices and lawyering from 20 years ago. Shame on you.

The truth is that a competent defense attorney should be able to challenge an improper ID through cross-examination and the use of an expert witness. Why don't you demand new laws requiring competent defense attorneys?

The truth is that the general point of all your whining was to try and move one more step to trying to abolish the death penalty. When will you be as honest as you demand prosecutors to be?

Once again, the liberals have outsmarted themselves.

Hook Em Horns said...

0557 ANON - This is not, or should not be a liberal v. conservative issue. Texas law and order morons (like yourself) cannot seem to fathom 40 DNA exonerations. They just dont get it. The truth is the police and DA's in a number of cases are SHADY! There is an institutionalized problem in Texas with eyewitness identification.

You are right, there should be a moratorium on capital punishment until Texas proves it can get the right person. This state is a JOKE and the criminal injustice system should be feared. All you have to do to go to prison in this state is NOT have an alibi. Doesn't matter whether you did it or not!

SH Larry said...

0557: how do you explain what's been happening in Dallas County?

Maybe one of your family members, close friends, or even yourself needs to experience what these men went through before you guys actually get it.

In reality, I don't see much difference in law enforcement practices and lawyering 20 years ago from today, and by killing these bills, I don't see it happening again for some time. The economy two years from now, if it stays the course, will certainly draw attention away from these matters.

I'd give our "elected leaders" an "F" this session, not just on the innocence projects, but many, many more.

Now I think I'll play "go fish" with my daughter, which amounts to the way you all seem to think.

I think GFB is right on the money.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

5:57, you don't have a clue what you're talking about. For starters, I don't oppose the death penalty. Plus, a survey by the Justice Project from last fall showed these exact police practices are ongoing. Finally, cross examination won't help when a false ID has been reinforced by police behavior at the time they make the identification (because most agencies don't use blind administration.) Each of your petty little barbs are BS red herrings - pure ignorance wrapped in smarmy self satisfaction.

Try to comment here in reaction to what's actually been written instead of speculating about others' motives which you clearly know nothing about.

Anonymous said...

The saddest commentary of the night is that anon 5:57, no matter how offensive, has got the full backing of the lege. At least, that is the way it appears from their lack of action.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Grits. You can't believe an eye witness. To many eyewitnesses have taken the thugs off the streets. It time to put them back out there.

Anonymous said...

I have never been so disgusted by the Texas legislature than I have been this session. Ego pychos like Whitmire and Williams alowed to run all over their fellow Senators without consequence? Where did representative government go?

Hook Em Horns said...

Anonymous said...

I agree with Grits. You can't believe an eye witness. To many eyewitnesses have taken the thugs off the streets. It time to put them back out there.

6/01/2009 09:57:00 PM

Hey idiot, they have taken the WRONG people off the streets in at least 40 DNA exonerations. These are the ones we know about so guess what? YOUR THUGS ARE STILL OUT THERE! Multiply this by the shadiness (non-DNA) all over Texas and you can rest assured, PO-PO has got the wrong guy plenty of times. Lock your doors and windows, Texas gets the wrong people and when they are called on it, DO NOTHING to go after the actual perps. IDIOT!

SH Larry said...

Maybe it's time for taking that self-serving, egotistical attitude out of Texas, and maybe someone should realize innocence does exist in this state? Or is it too late and we're just so damn head strong to realize innocence is a possibility and sometimes a reality in TEXAS as we've seen in DALLAS?

Anonymous said...

Grits, We know how you feel here in Bexar. Simonelli's lawyers got Fitzgerald on Depo to admit he knew about the false positives for 4 months and did nothing until she spoke out. So, you have one of the top ten largest cities in the US, with the head of the probation department admitting he knew bad evidence was going to court. Now I know that is about 3 to 4 crimes that he committed by hiding the evidence. Susan Reed sits behind her big desk doing nothing. Reed could careless about justice or the truth. Reed has the evidence and chooses to ignore the crimes by Fitzgerald. We all have to fight for what should be obvious to the common person. I do have faith that the false convictions in Dallas will eventually change the laws. As for this lege they have the Susan Reed nothing.

Go... Nico La Hood.....yes she has an opponent in 2010...see things are looking up for Bexar...Hang in Grits the change is coming....just not soon enough

Hook Em Horns said...

SH Larry said...

Maybe it's time for taking that self-serving, egotistical attitude out of Texas, and maybe someone should realize innocence does exist in this state? Or is it too late and we're just so damn head strong to realize innocence is a possibility and sometimes a reality in TEXAS as we've seen in DALLAS?

I like this. Amen. I have never understood why there is no outrage over the 40 that we know about. No outrage and one new law passes the legislature. Seriously, what in the hell is wrong with Texas? I live here and I cannot answer that but I know this. Until something slaps Texans in the face (in other words, directly affects them), it's hard to get them to care.

This issue is not going away. The HPD crime lab was shady for years before principles got caught messing with evidence and now word comes that cops working for the lab lied about bad evidence in court.

I really want to have confidence in the criminal justice system but thats impossible with the liars, cheats and sneaks who make up the system. How do you begin to fix a system that is so tainted by toxic practices that it cannot admit error?


Anonymous said...

Texas prosecuted about one million people last year. Average that number back over 20 years, and you see that the system does pretty well. And, so, Grits says discover that human error results in less than 50 exonerations. Any system with that kind of error rate is considered a very good system. Not perfect (as no system is perfect) but very good.

So, that's why the whining and exaggeration of this web site falls on deaf ears. It's one thing to suggest some improvements. It's another to point fingers, accuse and exaggerate. People don't listen when you take that approach.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

6:58 - Your pitiful attempts to downplay this issue and fabricate a low error "rate" ignores several critical facts -

Most importantly: The recent exoneratiosn were only those with DNA. DNA only exists in less than 10% of violent crimes and was destroyed by most jurisdictions for older cases, or they'd be seeing the same type of numbers Dallas does. The METHODS that cause false convictions - bad eyeID techniques, etc.- are widely used in many cases where no DNA exists to test.

Applying the most common estimates on the rate of false convictions, the number of innocent people currently sitting in prison likely runs into the thousands.

Anonymous said...

By focusing on the apparently small statictical error rate compared with all criminal prosecutions, anon 6:58 loses focus on what is at issue - implementing better procedures that can improve accuracy. These mistakes are so bad (not only for the innocent guy in prison, but for the true perp who is free to victimize others), so until we take all the steps we can to prevent the mistakes, we are taking unnecessary risks. Get over the defensiveness and get on board with making the system better wherever we can!

Anonymous said...

A little good legislation could go a very long way. Thousands of innocent people in our prisons means thousands of lives ruined. If this injustice is preventable, why not prevent it?

If it is your life, it is 100% ruined. IF it is your life ruined, it is 100% significant and 100% worth fixing.

Anyone that thinks our judicial system works pretty well, truly does not know what they're talking about.

I too am embarassed to find that the Texas Ligislators are so worried about their votes that they are paralyzed when it comes to doing the job they were elected to do.

Hook Em Horns said...

"Anonymous said...
less than 50 exonerations. Any system with that kind of error rate is considered a very good system. Not perfect (as no system is perfect) but very good."

If you were 1 of the 40 who spent 20+ years in a Texas pole barn for something you didn't do, your opinion would change. Like most Texans, this does not affect you directly so you don't care.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I think the minority on here are losing the point. The justice system is supposed to guarantee that innocent people are NOT put behind bars. Remember the statement better that 10 guilty go free than one innocent put away? I guess that part of US history was lost on you.

It's funny, 200 and some odd years ago, our fore-fathers fought a war to enable us to be free. Over those same 200 and some odd years WE as American's have happily given everything regarding freedom back to a New King... The Government.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say thanks Grits. For this blog, keeping those of us that do care in the loop, so to speak.

It is a bit disheartening to have this legislative session end on such a disappointing note.

But what you do does make a difference and I just wanted to tell you that I think so.

Much Obliged!