Ending Wrongful Convictions

Lawmakers urge passage of bill to study causes

Tim Cole
Tim Cole

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, joined with colleagues Monday morning to urge support for and passage of House Bill 166, which would create a statewide innocence commission to study cases of wrongful convictions.

The measure has been proposed during previous legislative sessions but without making much headway. This time around the bill has bipartisan support, with Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, and Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, signing on as primary authors of the bill. Leach told reporters during a Monday morning press conference that he considers passage of the measure a "pro-life" proposal meant to protect the innocent.

Indeed, Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who is carrying the measure in the Senate, said that the state needs a way to conduct postmortem investigations in cases where we know justice has been delayed or altogether denied. "When an airplane goes down, we don't take the position, 'well, stuff happens,'" he said. Instead, an independent panel is convened and "probative questions" are asked "to see what went wrong, to keep that from happening again." We'd do it with a "bus wreck [or a] car wreck," and should do the same with miscarriages of justice.

The bill would create the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission, named for Cole who died in prison while serving time for a sexual assault he did not commit. He was posthumously pardoned in 2010. The Commission would be tasked with identifying the causes of wrongful conviction, and to review writs filed with the COurt of Criminal Appeals in search of any evidence of ethical violations by judges or attorneys – conduct it would then be responsible for reporting to the proper authority – among other duties.

Ten states have established a commission or body to study wrongful convictions; Texas leads the nation in wrongful convictions, with 117 exonerations, including 48 DNA exonerations.

The bill is expected to come up tomorrow, April 23, for a vote on the House floor.

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