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Would a new state commission finally keep us from throwing innocents in prison?

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Gilbert Valdez, then 17-years-old, had been friends with the girl for over a year. Just days shy of her 16th birthday, she, like Valdez, had a rebellious streak; on probation for stealing a car, she was a frequent runaway, while Valdez briefly ran with a local street gang. The two had had sex before.

The night of June 16, 1996, the girl phoned Valdez saying she'd boosted a bottle of Bacardi from her parents' liquor cabinet. They got drunk and cruised around San Antonio. The night was a blur, but at some point, they both think, they had oral sex in the back of Valdez's car. Later, amid the revelry at a friend's house, some older man took the teenage girl into a dark bedroom and raped her. When Valdez dropped her off at another party somewhere along Broadway, another older man raped her.

The next day, the girl called Valdez, asking for a ride to the hospital. Records from University Hospital state the girl "reported 2 males she didn't really know raped her." A nurse's note says the sexual encounter with Valdez was "consensual." The girl later gave a 10-page statement to police restating that two strangers, not Valdez, raped her.

Still, Valdez was arrested almost a year later for the incident, charged with sexual assault of a child. Valdez's defense attorney, his father, knew nothing of the girl's statements to police or doctors before he urged his son to plead guilty and take a deal to avoid a long prison term. Those exculpatory records didn't surface until last year, months before Valdez was cleared of the crime and his name finally stricken from the state's sex offender registry.

Over the past 25 years, well over 100 Texans have been exonerated. Of those, 47 have been cleared through DNA testing, the most nationwide. This legislative session, state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon has revived a decade-long fight to establish a commission studying how and why these innocents were wrongfully thrown in prison.

McClendon's current House Bill 166 would create the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission, named after a Texas Tech student who died in prison 13 years after being convicted of a rape DNA evidence later proved he didn't commit. Under McClendon's bill, governor-appointed commissioners would investigate cases in which a post-conviction exoneration has been granted, searching for how the system failed, whether through suppressed evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective public defenders, or junk science deployed in court. The commission would refer misconduct to the appropriate body, whether the State Bar or even the state's Judicial Conduct Commission.

The bill also calls for the exoneration commission to review every writ of habeas corpus, the legal mechanism for prisoners to challenge their convictions, filed with the Court of Criminal Appeals — McClendon says about 3,000 are filed each year.

While McClendon's similar bill failed two years ago, recent high-profile exonerations appear to be boosting support for her commission.

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