This story about the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals offering support to the Innocence Network is a very pleasant surprise.
A decision by Texas' highest criminal court to support the struggling Texas Innocence Network may signal a crack in state officials' longtime resistance to innocence claims.
The growing number of exonerations in recent years persuaded the Court of Criminal Appeals to put up $10,000 from an education fund it oversees to finance a Nov. 5 conference in Austin on how to expand the fledgling Innocence Network statewide, said Judge Barbara Hervey. The network currently is based at two universities.
The appeals court has been criticized for what some consider its indifference to innocence claims, most famously when it rejected DNA evidence in the case of Roy Criner.
Criner served 10 years in prison before being pardoned in 2000 after a second DNA test showed he did not commit the rape for which he was convicted.
"The court has been criticized, particularly by the defense bar, as being prosecution-oriented," said law professor Robert Dawson, who heads the Innocence Network branch at the University of Texas at Austin. "That's what makes Judge Hervey's participation so remarkable."
Hervey is the driving force behind the initiative by the appeals court, the state's court of last resort in criminal cases. "My goal is to see Texas lead the way nationwide," she said.
The effort to bolster the Texas Innocence Network has the backing of all nine judges on the Court of Criminal Appeals, six of whom will attend the Nov. 5 conference, Hervey said.
Many district attorneys are skeptical or even hostile to the idea of an innocence commission and the work of the Innocence Network because both review their work.
Rob Kepple, director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said he will attend the conference with an open mind.
"If it's done properly and with a set of procedures, I think it's great," Kepple said. "If all it's going to do is be press conferences and bashing people in the system and a way to abolish the death penalty, I think you've got problems."
Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, whose office has been plagued by problems at the Houston police crime lab that affected hundreds of cases, was uncertain about attending the gathering. He has clashed with the founding branch of the Innocence Network at the University of Houston but says he does not oppose expanding the network.
"I have never minded people grading my papers," he said.
But he added that the UH Innocence Network has treated his office shabbily.
"I've been upset that they've wanted to handle cases in the media as opposed to the courts," Rosenthal said. "There have been times when they have resorted to ad hominem attacks on people in this office as opposed to legal attacks."
Dow, head of the UH program, said the network has good relations with other district attorneys' offices but Rosenthal's seems "unusually defensive and reluctant to admit fault."