From the Office of State Senator Rodney Ellis

For Immediate Release
June 8, 2000
Contact: Jeremy Warren, (512) 463-0113

Senator Ellis Announces Major Criminal Justice Overhaul
Senator plans legislative package on DNA testing, indigent defense and death penalty reforms

AUSTIN// Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) announced a major effort to overhaul Texas' oft-criticized criminal justice system at a press conference today in Austin.

Flanked by national DNA expert Barry Scheck, Senator Ellis announced he will introduce legislation to allow post-conviction DNA testing, in limited circumstances, to ensure that innocent Texans are not wrongfully imprisoned or executed.

"Texas' criminal justice system is on trial and so far the evidence is overwhelming," said Ellis. "Nearly every day a new case arises that calls into question the administration of justice in our state. We can no longer ignore the need for fundamental reform. I believe that these strong, sensible reforms will go a long way toward ensuring a more fair and equitable justice system."

The push for legislation on DNA testing comes as national attention has focused on high profile Texas cases involving DNA. Last Thursday, Ricky Nolen McGinn, a death row inmate convicted of rape and murder, was given a 30 day reprieve in order to obtain a new DNA test because of questions surrounding his sentence. Also last week, Governor Bush pardoned A.B. Butler, a Tyler man serving a 99-year sentence for abduction and rape, after DNA tests proved he was innocent. Butler wrongfully spent 17 years in prison for the crime.

Ellis' DNA proposal will allow a convicted person to petition the trial court to permit DNA testing in their appeal. The legislation will be limited, allowing additional DNA testing only in those cases in which: 1) identity was the issue in the trial which resulted in the conviction, and 2) the evidence to be tested has been subject to a chain of custody sufficient to establish that it has not been substituted, tampered with, replaced or altered in any material aspect.

The Ellis legislation will also require law enforcement, prosecution, and the courts to preserve all DNA and biological evidence until the convicted person is no longer incarcerated. The Ellis plan is similar to legislation passed in Illinois and New York.

"Technological advances in fields such as DNA testing are beginning to play a significant role in the courtroom," said Ellis. "If the state is to administer the ultimate penalty -- the death sentence -- then Texas law must allow for this important technology to be used in appeals."

DNA testing is just one portion of an overall reform package Senator Ellis will seek next session. Other key elements will include: