Thursday, April 28, 2011

Editorial: House turned a blind eye with innocence commission vote

The following editorial was published by the Dallas Morning News on April 26, 2011.

Texas House members took a bold stand last week with preliminary passage of a bill to dissect and improve the justice system.
Then they changed their minds.

The end result was rejection of a new Timothy Cole Innocence Commission to analyze wrongful convictions and identify ways that Texas could avoid repeating shameful outcomes in the court system.
With more than 40 DNA-proven exonerations of convicted men — more than any other state — Texas should be looking for ways to guard against more hideous miscarriages of justice. Defeat of HB 115 sends the offensive message that the status quo is somehow good enough. Well, it isn’t.

The bill called for a nine-person commission that would review every case of a convicted person who was exonerated in the courts. The panel would pinpoint the causes of wrongful conviction, then “consider and develop solutions and methods” to reduce the chance for error through new laws, procedures, programs and training.

On the initial vote Thursday, the House gave the bill decisive preliminary passage, 82-54. But legislative whiplash came the next day, and the bill went down just as decisively on the final vote, 51-91.

Rep. Tryon Lewis, R-Odessa, made a final plea to keep review of criminal cases “within the judiciary.” Outside review, he warned, would invite “all of these politics” that have swirled around the Texas Forensic Science Commission’s examination of the Cameron Todd Willingham arson-murder case.

We can’t imagine a more distorted and myopic view. If it hadn’t been for the forensics panel, it might not be clear to the justice community that arson investigators had a crude understanding of fire science when Willingham was convicted in 1992.

Has the forensic panel’s work been without controversy? No. Has it been free of politics? No, not since the governor’s meddling in the process. But the most important question: Has the forensic inquiry been valuable? Without question. The panel recently issued 17 recommendations for how arson professionals and the courts can be more alert to the standards in that discipline.

Don’t expect the courts to get into that territory. They have not and will not do thoughtful post-mortems in any number of wrongful convictions, including the notorious case of Anthony Graves, who was railroaded and sent to death row. Texas courts utterly failed to read the warning signs of a prosecution that would be laughable if it weren’t so corrupt and cruel.

Outside watchdogs are exactly what Texas courts need.

Ask the family of Timothy Cole, whose name would have been on the new commission. He was wrongly convicted of rape in 1985 and then exonerated by DNA testing in 2008, nine years after he died in prison.

We hope lawmakers have a chance to get this right if proponents of the Cole legislation manage to graft it onto another bill as an amendment. Texas lawmakers must take off the blinders.

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