Exoneration Commission Bill Clears House, on to Senate

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Applause broke out on the floor Wednesday when the Texas House passed Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon’s (D-San Antonio)House Bill 166, which would establish a commission to investigate and review wrongful convictions in the state.

It was a far cry from last session when, on the verge of passage, House members got spooked and failed to approve the bill on final reading.

Named after a man posthumously exonerated for a rape he did not commit, Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission would set up a nine-member panel of governor appointees, who would then investigate how and why the state convicted innocent defendants. The initial bill called for the commission to sunset after 12 years. On second reading, the sunset was cut to eight years. A final amendment to the bill yesterday cut the sunset to four years.

McClendon contends exonerations warrant review outside the justice system, and that a panel separate from the courts could root out the causes of wrongful convictions – whether junk science, prosecutorial misconduct, or ineffective attorneys at trial. (See our coverage of two local exonerations).

In a statement after the bill’s final vote in the House, McClendon said, “It is high time we get serious about ‘liberty and justice for all.’ This bill will help us accomplish that search for true justice.” The bill now heads to what appears to be a favorable Senate.

Recent high-profile exonerations have largely driven criminal justice reform efforts at the Lege this session. Senate Bill 1611, which was unanimously approved by the Senate earlier this month, was named after Michael Morton, who in 1987 was wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife and sentenced to life in prison. (See Pamela Colloff’s compelling, National Magazine Award-nominated account of the whole saga in the Texas Monthly). A judge last week ruled the attorney that prosecuted Morton, who’s now a sitting district judge, deliberately concealed evidence in the case.

SB 1611, which would require that prosecutors turn over all evidence to defense lawyers in criminal cases, is set for a public hearing in the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee on Monday.

 

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