The following editorial was published in the Houston Chronicle on July 27, 2010.
Positive developments in two cases here equal a good week for Texas justice.
In two very different venues in Houston last week, progress was made in addressing an endemic stain on Texas justice: the wrongful conviction of innocent people.
In an emotional courtroom scene, a teary-eyed state District Judge Joan Campbell announced she would recommend the release of 39-year-old Allen Wayne Porter, who has served 19 years of a life sentence in state prison for participation in a 1990 robbery-rape in southwest Houston.
After years of pleading innocence and seeing his efforts at exoneration rebuffed, Porter wrote a detailed letter to Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos. She forwarded it to attorneys in her office's post-conviction review section, who compiled testimony that convinced Judge Campbell that Porter had been wrongfully identified by a victim and did not participate in the crime. District Attorney Lykos deserves credit for giving Porter's case the thorough scrutiny that would likely not have occurred under her predecessor, Chuck Rosenthal.
"The integrity of the criminal justice system means everything," said Lykos. "Wrongful convictions are a triple tragedy — for the accused, the victim and society. The true criminal is free to continue to commit offenses."
Judge Campbell ordered Porter released on bond pending action by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on her recommendation.
Ironically, a day later another district attorney was in Houston leading an effort to undercut the Texas Forensic Science Commission's ability to determine the validity of arson evidence that led to the execution of a Corsicana man, Cameron Todd Willingham. A national arson expert who consulted with the commission, Craig Beyler, concluded that the evidence was flawed and investigators should have known that.
The Innocence Project estimates that more than 600 inmates in Texas prisons were convicted using the same kind of questionable evidence.
Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley was appointed chairman of the commission by Gov. Rick Perry, who had refused a last-minute stay of execution request by Willingham. Bradley was part of a shake-up of the commission membership by the governor shortly before a scheduled presentation by Beyler to the group. Bradley canceled the meeting. Critics charged that Perry used Bradley to ice the probe and prevent political embarrassment to the governor before the November election.
Before last week's meeting, Bradley had issued a memo that if adopted would have restricted the commission's jurisdiction to evidence processed in state-accredited crime labs. That would have effectively taken the Willingham matter out of consideration.
On Friday, the commission committee looking into the Willingham case issued tentative findings that the arson evidence was "flawed science," but that arson investigators did not commit misconduct or negligence.
The commission pledged to examine arson investigation techniques in Texas and indicated it will take up the Willingham case at a meeting later in the summer.
Most significantly, the commission voted 8-0 to reject Bradley's memo. Chronicle columnist Rick Casey called the vote a defining moment for the commission in asserting its independence and authority.
It was a good week in Houston for Texas justice. One DA did her job and helped free an innocent man, while another was prevented from sabotaging the commission created by the state Legislature to improve Lone Star forensic science.