Sunday, November 01, 2015

Smithee to chair Exoneration Commission

The Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission held an organizational meeting on Thursday and will meet again before the end of the year.

In addition to the members designated by statute, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht appointed former Harris County DA Carol Vance on behalf of the Texas Judicial Council, and Governor Abbott appointed Charles Eskridge, a prominent Houston attorney who helps vet federal judicial candidates for Senators Cornyn and Cruz and helped Anthony Graves seek Charles Sebesta's disbarment. (As luck would have it, your correspondent is an advisory member of the panel on behalf of the Innocence Project of Texas.)

I particularly enjoyed meeting Mr. Vance, whose name I've heard since my youthful days as a reporter, by which time he was already a living legend among Texas prosecutors. Having been appointed Harris County DA by John Connally then winning reelection, Vance served in that capacity from 1966 to 1979. Then in 1992, Ann Richards appointed him chairman of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice where he presided over its massive expansion. For the past twenty years, though, he's been a passionate prison-ministry advocate. An eponymous prison unit 30 miles from Houston is the site of the late Charles Colson's famed Inner-Change Freedom Initiative. (Vance is 82.) His reputation may be that of a "stormtrooper," as an attorney friend declared upon learning of his appointment. But that's neither the sense I got from his remarks to the group on Thursday, nor from our brief conversation, after which I left thinking he could end up being a really valuable addition to the group.

Most of the meeting consisted of brief overview presentations and introduction of staff and members. Senator Rodney Ellis and an ailing but game Ruth Jones-McClendon offered opening remarks. The Commission saw a compelling video on Tim Cole's posthumous exoneration and heard exoneree Richard Miles recount the story of a prosecutor hiding exculpatory evidence to convict him and the state bar giving the guy a pass. Forensic Science Commission Chairman Vincent DiMaio described the challenges distinguishing between real and junk science among traditional forensics.

The only real action taken by the Commission was to select a chair, which HB 48 declared would be selected by the group's members. State Rep. John Smithee of Amarillo offered to do the job and was handed the gavel by acclamation. Grits thinks he'll be an excellent leader for the group.  He's passionate about the issues - as Tim Cole's family was leaving toward the end of the meeting, Smithee stopped them and pledged that the commissioners would try to make them proud - and he has supported all the major innocence reforms at the Texas Legislature over the last several sessions.

As a bonus, as a House committee chairman and ally of the Speaker, perhaps Chairman Smithee will be in a position to shepherd reforms through the Calendars Committee, which for several sessions has functioned as a graveyard for reform bills like recording custodial interrogations. After all, the important thing in the end is not, "what does the commission recommend?," but "what does the Legislature pass?" The 11 recommendations from five years ago covered six major issue areas, all but one of which (recording interrogations) have been addressed by legislation in the intervening years.

The group has basically a year to come up with new recommendations to prevent false convictions, so of necessity they'll have to limit the issue areas on which they focus. IPOT produced a summary document for the commission suggesting potential areas of focus based on the group's statutory duties and the array of cases from 2010-present they've been charged with analyzing - it's not a set agenda but a starting point for discussion. In particular, IPOT hopes they'll issue recommendations on new areas which the 2010 Tim Cole Advisory Panel did not address, like reining in mendacious confidential informants and the pressure put on innocent defendants in less-serious cases to plead guilty because of pretrial detention. The commission has a big job ahead of it and I look forward to working with all these folks.

MORE: From the Amarillo Globe-News.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What exonerations have in common is dedicated people reviewing the evidence in a case and discovering incompatibilities with the truth. Believe it or not what governs the timing and information access is public records laws.

What I urge the commission to explore is the so old no one can remember why secrecy surrounding cases before they go to court. Although eye witness protection is important, a lot of evidence in a case could be exposed to the public before trial. For example audio or video recordings of an alleged crime, scientific tests results, etc.

Wrongful convictions flow from an imbalance in the flow of information. Improve access to certain types of information before trial and you won't have to worry as much about uninvolved public defenders or shady DA's.