HB 498, Innocence Commission Passes Criminal Justice Committee
Timothy Cole Innocence Commission to review wrongful convictions, recommend policy changes
House Bill 498, legislation creating the Timothy Cole Innocence Commission, has passed the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and will soon be debated by the full Senate.
The legislation, by Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio), creates the Timothy Cole Innocence Commission which would investigate the proven wrongful convictions of innocent Texans, evaluate what went wrong and caused those wrongful convictions, and make recommendations to prevent such tragedies from reoccurring in the future.
Just as the National Transportation Safety Board investigates airline crashes and other major transportation accidents, the Timothy Cole Innocence Commission would investigate convictions of innocent people in Texas to see what went wrong and recommend the safeguards that should be put in place to avoid similar future "major accidents" in the criminal justice system.
"The long fight to create an innocence commission in Texas is one step closer to completion," said Ellis. "The advent of DNA has helped right wrongs -- often far too late -- but we as a state need to do much more to find out the causes of these miscarriages of justice and implement changes to prevent them from happening again. This legislation ensures we can help avert miscarriages of justice before they happen."
The problem of wrongful convictions has received a flurry of major media coverage in Texas in recent months. The November 2008 edition of Texas Monthly profiled the men who have been exonerated in Texas thanks to DNA evidence. In October, the Dallas Morning News ran a three-part series on the causes of the 19 DNA exonerations out of Dallas County. The Houston Chronicle has continued its excellent coverage of the ongoing challenges at the Houston Police Department crime lab.
"Enough is enough," said Ellis. "Day after day, week after week, we learn of more innocent Texans who have had their lives torn from them in tragic error. It is time for Texas to create an Innocence Commission to launch in-depth investigations each time an innocent person is wrongfully convicted, review what went wrong in these cases, why, and spell out the changes necessary to ensure these injustices are not repeated."
According to the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal clinic and criminal justice legal resource center in New York, 238 people nationwide have been cleared through DNA testing after they were convicted. In Texas 39 men have been exonerated by DNA testing.
"When the State of Texas locks up someone for a crime they didn't commit, it does not just affect one life," said Ellis. "Loved ones and dependents of the wrongfully convicted also suffer. This case is the latest wake up call that Texas needs to take serious action to reform our criminal justice system."
Under HB 498, nine members would be appointed to the Innocence Commission, as follows:
- Two appointed members by the Governor-- One prosecuting attorney and a law enforcement officer.
- The Chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, who may be a member of the legislature.
- The Chair of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee shall appoint one member, who may be a member of the legislature.
- The presiding judge of the court of criminal appeals shall appoint one member, who must be a member of the judiciary.
- The presiding officer of the Texas Forensic Science Commission shall appoint one member, who must work in the forensic science field.
- The Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association shall appoint one member, who must be a criminal defense lawyer.
- The president of the Texas Center for Actual Innocence at The University of Texas School of Law, the director of the innocence project at the University of Houston Law Center, or the director of the innocence project at the Texas Tech University School of Law, on a rotating basis, shall appoint one member, who must be an attorney with experience in filing successful appellate claims based on actual innocence.
- The Executive Director of the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense.
Each member serves a two-year term. The governor shall designate a member to serve as presiding officer.