Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Innocence clinic funding a minor bright spot in gloomy budget

One small bright spot in an otherwise gloomy proposed Texas budget: The draft issued today included funding for the state's innocence clinics at the state's four public law schools, which had been widely rumored as a target of cuts. This morning I attended a press conference (on behalf of my clients at the Innocence Project of Texas) to stress the importance of continuing to fund that post-conviction work. (See initial coverage from the Texas Tribune and the Dallas News.)

The highlight for me was getting to meet Claude Simmons Jr. and Christopher Scott, who were co-defendants exonerated in a non-DNA case thanks to the work of the UT-Austin Actual Innocence Clinic. Their example shows in stark terms why the innocence clinics are needed. Their case was initially considered by the clinic at the University of Houston back before the state provided funding for such work. The U of H folks saw that the case might have merit, but had to reject it because of a lack of resources to travel to Dallas for investigations. At the time, said deputy director Cassandra Jeu, the work was done on an all-volunteer basis and out-of-town cases couldn't be investigated unless a student happened to live in the area and did investigative work while home on vacation.

Not long after innocence clinics began to receive state funding, the UT-Austin clinic decided to take up their case. Four years later Simmons and Scott were released, and the actually guilty parties identified.

These law school innocence clinics, funded annually at just $100,000 each per year, arguably get more bang for the buck than other legal services paid for by the state because of the multiplier effect from so many law students working on cases. What's more, as a student from the UT clinic described, the cases give students hands-on legal experience dealing with courts and clients that makes them better lawyers, even if they choose not to go into criminal law in their professional life.

The final speaker at the presser was Cory Session, brother of Timothy Cole who was posthumously exonerated and pardoned after dying in prison from an asthma attack, falsely convicted based on an erroneous ID from a photo array. The Dallas News quoted Cory thusly, and it's a good note to end on:
"They have done admirable works at these clinics," Session said. "If anything I would like the funding to be increased...I often wonder if there had been a law school clinic back in 1999, if my brother Tim would have made it out, but suffice to say he didn't. We want to make sure there is not another Tim Cole, that not another innocent person has to be in prison a day longer."


Deborah said...

Please tell me how to get ahold of these folks. I have a woman over at TDC coalition assisting me trying to find a way out for my husband. We have two writ of habeas corpus' out; one that went to criminal court 182 and appellate and was denied; and we sent it forward to the federal court, where a judge has threatened Texas state sanctions, if they do not produce the original documents and audio tape from my husband's parole revocation hearing; and a second writ of habeas corpus is now winding its way through the trecherous seas of the court 182 again and they have tried to stifle this one too! My husband is in prison for a bad check he wrote 20 or more years ago, that he has paid for over and over again (before I met him!) He has been incarcerated for almost two years (June 2009). Can you give me a way to get ahold of the folks over at the innocence clinic? My husband needs to come home now and become a taxpaying citizen again! Thank you!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Deb, the innocence clinics are at Texas' four public law schools - UT Austin, Texas Tech, the University of Houston, and Texas Southern University. I'm pretty sure all have a web presence with contact info.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me that the Legislature would be better served using this money to support improvements to law enforcement and crime labs on the front end. The more effective law enforcement becomes, in getting the right guy, the less need there would be for these post-conviction innocent clinics. Something along the lines of "closing the barn door after the cows have already got out." Just my opinion.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I'd like them to do both, 9:53, but the flip side is that the examples of these cases have taught us a lot about exactly how these false convictions occur, and understanding the problem is always a prerequisite to fixing it.

Hook Em Horns said...

"Innocence clinic funding a minor bright spot in gloomy budget"

Also known as the flavor of the month.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Scott, congratulations on getting the IPoT gig.

Re: Mr. Claude Simmons & Mr. Christopher Scott, I became aware of this rare (if not unheard of) event via one of UT-Austin clinic's students on their case(s) (Ms. Natalie Ellis). She will soon become part of a new generation of attorneys/lawyers that will insist on investigating and defending (fighting) to a verdict vs. pleading.

Those with claims of actual innocence should not get their hopes up in expecting any assistance from the four clinics. I've rec. replies from New York to Texas since 98 saying due to the recent media attention they have been swamped. Unless your case can be proven with DNA and/or you are currently on Death Row we can't help.

I can't help but wonder how many non-DNA cases $100.000. would cover? I personally proved my own non-DNA claim simply by purchasing a copy of the Police Incident Report, Police Photo, Certified Case File and Criminal History. All for under $75 bucks and a $15. fingerprint fee.

Yes, sometimes you can do it yourself but good luck in getting it passed the Wall aka: TBoPP. You'll need even more good luck getting any Governor to consider it. Thanks.