Criminal Justice: Innocence Is No Defense

There are several dozen criminal justice reforms under consideration, and a handful might actually be enacted.

Criminal Justice:  Innocence Is No Defense
Illustration By Doug Potter

Matters of life and death have been the subject of passionate testimony in House and Senate committees -- and with few exceptions, that's where the discussion ended. Houston's Sen. Rodney Ellis and Rep. Harold Dutton have drafted more than a dozen bills attempting to reshape the state's criminal-justice system. Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, and Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, have also offered significant reforms.

There are bills that would ban the execution of youthful offenders, regulate state crime labs, or abolish the death penalty. Dutton's HB 357 would put a two-year moratorium on executions while a commission -- akin to Illinois' Ryan Commission -- would examine the Texas system; Naishtat's HJR 22 would enable a moratorium, and his HB 866 would establish a capital punishment commission.

The bills have generally received endorsement by the state's religious establishment, the criminal-defense bar, and civil libertarians; and opposition primarily from big-city prosecutors and the Houston-based "victim's rights" group Justice for All. Ellis has secured committee approval for four significant bills: SB 601 and its companion constitutional amendment SJR 28 give the governor the power to grant multiple stays of execution, SB 1045 would create an "Innocence Commission" on wrongful convictions, and SB 1607 would regulate state crime labs. The future looks brightest for some by hybrid of Criminal Jurisprudence Chair Keel's HB 615, to ensure that competent attorneys are appointed to state habeas appeals. Lucio's SB 348 (co-sponsored by Ellis and Sen. Juan Hinojosa) proposes a capital sentencing option of life without parole and has been approved by the Criminal Justice committee.

SB 1607 has the largest fiscal note, over $800,000, but unregulated labs are already expensive: Reports of ineptitude or corruption at the Houston PD crime lab threaten hundreds of Harris Co. convictions. The bill's relatively good prospects reflect how a lot of these measures become law: damage control. On the other hand, despite the U.S. Supreme Court's 2002 ruling that execution of the mentally retarded is unconstitutional, Texas has not figured a way to comply. Keel's HB 614, which would make the determination post-conviction, was scheduled for a committee hearing April 8. The moratorium bills have scant chance of passage, although in recent years 107 inmates nationwide (seven in Texas) have been freed from death rows after proof of actual innocence. This year, the Houston Chronicle and Dallas Morning News have joined the Austin American-Statesman in endorsing a moratorium, and the latest Texas Poll shows growing public doubt in Texas' capital punishment system: 69% of people surveyed said they believe Texas has executed innocent men.

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