State Releases Recommendations to Reduce Wrongful Convictions and Approves Harris County's Public Defender Grant Application
(Austin, TX) — Senator Rodney Ellis held a press conference today at the state capitol to announce the release of the Tim Cole Advisory Panel's (TCAP) recommendations and approval of Harris County's public defender office grant application. He was joined by Representative Ruth Jones McClendon; Cory Session, Tim Cole's brother; Anthony Robinson, Texas exoneree; and Jeff Blackburn, founder and chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas. Both issues were taken up at today's meeting of the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense.
TCAP was created by the 81st Legislature by HB 498 (McClendon/Ellis) to study the causes of wrongful convictions and to make policy recommendations to lessen the likelihood of wrongful convictions. To date, Texas has 41 DNA exonerations; more than any other state in the country.
"I applaud the Tim Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions for recognizing that something must be done to reduce wrongful convictions in Texas. The Panel brought together representatives from across the criminal justice system, the legislature, and the governor's office to come to a consensus on what must be done to address this serious problem. The Panel's report, which was finalized today, is an important first step for increasing the accuracy and reliability of eyewitness identifications, confessions, and other evidence used in our state's courtrooms.
"Now the ball is in the Legislature's court. I call on my fellow legislators and the next governor to dedicate ourselves to creating a justice system that truly protects the innocent, ensures the guilty are brought to justice, and is instilled with the fairness and integrity that justice demands. We owe Tim Cole and his family that much," said Senator Ellis.
Also today, the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense approved a $4.1 million grant to Harris County to establish a public defender office. The office will be overseen by a 15 member Public Defense Board, including four community representatives.
Twenty of the 22 District Criminal Courts (felony courts) will use the public defender office; 18 of the courts will use the PD Office for appeals in the first year; 20 courts will use the PD Office for trials by the second year, "not limited to state jail felonies but including felonies of varying degrees."
County Criminal Courts at Law (misdemeanor courts) will use the public defender for all appeals and up to 1,400 defendants who are mentally ill or have mental retardation. The office will also have a juvenile division that will be added in year two that will cover 2 of the 3 juvenile courts.
"I commend the Task Force on Indigent Defense for approving Harris County's $4.1 million grant request to establish a public defender office. If implemented and operated correctly, I believe the office will improve representation of indigent defendants, reduce the county's jail population, and reduce recidivism, as public defender offices have been shown to do in other parts of the state.
"I also commend the hard work of the county officials, judges, and county staff who revised the public defender plan in response to concerns expressed by Houston-area clergy and national advocacy organizations seeking to improve indigent defense. In particular, I would like to thank Commissioners El Franco Lee and Sylvia Garcia, co-chairs of the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council's Public Defender's Office Workgroup; their colleagues on the Commissioners Court; District Court Judge Mike Anderson; and Caprice Cosper, Director of Harris County's Office of Criminal Justice Coordination, for their hard work and dedication to improving indigent defense in Harris County," Senator Ellis added.
Recommendations by the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions