Monday, June 3, 2013

Wrongful Conviction Bills | Casey's Last Word

The legislative session that just closed was, as always, a mixed bag of accomplishments and disappointments.

But in one area it was – with one exception – a great success. That area is criminal justice.

Here are highlights.

The Legislature passed the Michael Morton Act.

It requires an “open file” policy by Texas district attorneys, giving defense lawyers access to all the evidence in criminal cases.

Many states already have such a policy and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 50 years ago that all evidence that tends to support the defense must be turned over.

But Texas prosecutors have not been required to open their files, and some have not been zealous in following the Supreme Court directive.

Morton spent 25 years in prison for murdering his wife before DNA evidence from a bandana found near his home turned up traces of his wife’s tissue and that of another man.

In an exceedingly rare development, the Williamson County district attorney who allegedly hid evidence from Morton’s defense team, now District Judge Ken Anderson, faces criminal charges for his allegedly hiding other exculpatory evidence.

It received little attention, but the Legislature last week passed a bill expanding the authority of the Texas Forensic Science Commission and doubling its budget. 

The commission was established in 2005 in the wake of crime lab scandals.

The bill awaits the governor’s signature, which is not guaranteed despite the fact that the bill passed both houses without opposition.

In 2008, Gov. Rick Perry attempted to neuter the commission.

It had generated an expert study that indicated Perry had erred in not blocking the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham for setting a fire that killed his three children.

The study found that despite trial testimony by state and local arson experts, there was no credible evidence of arson.

On the eve of the presentation of the study, Perry replaced the commission chairman with Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley.

Bradley notably had been involved in the Michael Morton case.

He had successfully fought for more than five years the testing of the bandana that would prove Morton’s innocence.

Bradley immediately cancelled the commission meeting at which they were to hear from the nationally prominent expert who conducted the Willingham study.

Then Bradley systematically worked to restrict the commission’s authority, obtaining an attorney general’s decision limiting the scope of their work to reviewing the work of crime labs.

The bill overrides the attorney general’s opinion by clearly expanding the commission’s authority to include a wide range of forensic science.

Finally, the disappointment.

The House voted 115-28 to establish a commission to investigate all exonerations, not just ones involving faulty forensic science.

It was named after Timothy Cole, who had been wrongly convicted of raping a Texas Tech student in 1985.

Cole had been convicted after, among many other things, police and prosecutors overlooked the fact that the rapist was a chain smoker.

Cole was so severely asthmatic that he eventually died in prison of an asthma attack.

The bill was blocked in a Senate committee by a group of Republicans, including former prosecutor and judge Sen. Joan Huffman of Houston.

San Antonio Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon was so upset that she used parliamentary techniques to kill a number of Huffman’s bills.

McClendon was criticized for killing innocent bills.

But unlike Timothy Cole, they can be revived.

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