May 10, 2008
Let's get serious about innocence

The Chron had a story yesterday about an "Innocence Summit", which focused on matters of wrongful convictions and what can and must be done about them. The first thing to remember here is that this isn't an abstract issue:

Nine wrongfully convicted men who spent a collective 148 years in Texas prisons met with a select group of prosecutors, judges and police chiefs in the Senate chamber Thursday to urge the state to establish a commission to investigate claims of innocence.

"I'm crying out for mercy today for someone who may still be in prison," said James Curtis Giles, who served 10 years in prison for rape before DNA testing proved him innocent.


Alejandro Hernandez said he spent 13 years in prison for murder based on a faulty police photo lineup. He said some innocent people could avoid conviction if a person not involved in the investigation handled photo lineups so they would not know which person was the suspect.

Billy Smith fought for five years to have the DNA test that exonerated him and prompted his release from prison after serving 19 years of a life sentence for rape that was based solely on a bad eyewitness identification. He said the state needs to provide better compensation for people who have been wrongfully convicted.

"I'm a victim. Make no mistake about that," Smith said.

Grits has two informative reports from the summit, which offer some hope for movement on the issue, plus a post of changes to lineup procedures in Dallas, which will help prevent future injustices.

New York criminal defense lawyer Barry Scheck, who directs the Innocence Project that has represented many of those freed in Texas, said "enormous progress has been made" in Texas.

Scheck praised Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt for making major improvements in the Houston crime lab. But Scheck said every police department in Texas needs to be improving its handling of eyewitness identifications as well as the collection of DNA evidence.

Hurtt said the state should consider funding regional crime labs so that the police are not in charge of them and they can be run on a more professional and efficient basis.

It always comes down to money - or really, given our current state of surplus, to how we prioritize spending that money - doesn't it? If we devoted one tenth of the resources to things like independent regional crime labs that we did to building more prisons, we wouldn't need to hold Innocence Summits. We'd finally be able to say that we really are doing the best we can to prevent these tragedies. And by the way, an independent crime lab has been a campaign theme of Clarence Bradford since he first announced his candidacy.

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins said efforts by his office to review innocence claims have restored confidence in the criminal justice system locally. Watkins said that several years ago drug dealers knew Dallas juries would not convict them because of a police evidence-planting scandal.

Watkins said one of his prosecutors recently was worried he could not get a conviction in a murder case because of publicity surrounding the wrongful-conviction release of 27-year inmate James Lee Woodard. But he said the jury took only five minutes to convict because confidence in the Dallas criminal justice system has been restored.

Maybe you have confidence in the criminal justice system, but if you've noticed that the vast majority of the people who are now being released from prison after being exonerated by DNA evidence are people of color, you might understand why not everyone shares that confidence.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, has been leading the effort to have an "innocence commission" formed in Texas. Ellis told the gathering that he has asked Gov. Rick Perry and other state leaders to establish such a commission but has not heard back from them.

Perry's top criminal justice adviser, Mary Anne Wiley, said the governor shares Ellis' concerns on issues such as improving the legal defense for people on trial and separating control of crime laboratories from the control of police departments. But she said he does not want to create another layer of government in the criminal justice system.

I'm sorry, but if the best Rick Perry can do is wring his hands and fret about "another layer of government", whatever that means, then it's a lie to say he shares Sen. Ellis' concerns. If he actually did share those concerns, he'd want to do something about them. Until such time, he remains part of the problem. And if you read through Grits' posts, you'll see that the Governor's intransigence is putting him increasingly at odds with members of his own party. Ensuring that the guilty are convicted and the innocent are not is not and should not be a partisan issue.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 10, 2008 to Crime and Punishment