Would a new state commission finally keep us from throwing innocents in prison?
Published: March 13, 2013
Prosecutorial misconduct appears to be behind the wrongful conviction of Michael Morton, who spent 25 years in prison for his wife's murder. Morton's lawyers have argued that his prosecutor, now sitting Williamson County state District Judge Ken Anderson, deliberately withheld key evidence that would have exonerated him. After years of legal wrangling, Morton's lawyers gained access to test a crucial piece of DNA evidence that proved him innocent. Morton was freed in October 2011; another man is now awaiting trial for his wife's murder.
In his biannual State of the Judiciary Address last week, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson referenced Morton's ordeal in calling for lawmakers to support McClendon's exoneration review commission. Such cases, he said, "leave us with the distinct impression" that we have a broken system of justice. "If innocent people are rotting in prison for crimes they did not commit, we certainly have not achieved justice for all," he said.
In an emotional hearing before a House committee last week, McClendon's bill garnered glowing support from fellow lawmakers.
Referencing the numerous exonerees who lined up to testify in support of the measure, state Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, said, "We owe them a great deal to make sure that this doesn't happen again."
Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, was more blunt.
"If somebody wrongfully convicted me, and I spent that much time in prison, they would be able to legitimately charge me with arson because I'd wanna burn the courthouse down," Canales said. If a state commission manages to "save one person one day from being incarcerated wrongly, then it's done its job," he said.
Texas ranks third in the nation, behind New York and Illinois, for the total number of prisoners exonerated, according to a database compiled by the law schools at University of Michigan and Northwestern University. Those exonerations, however, have been radically uneven across Texas counties. Dallas County, whose district attorney in 2007 set up a Conviction Integrity Unit to re-investigate potential innocence cases, has so far exonerated 49 convicts, according to the registry's count. The state's metro hubs of Harris, Travis, Tarrant and El Paso counties have all exonerated more prisoners than Bexar County.
Gilbert Valdez, one of only two known to have been exonerated in Bexar County, was initially represented by his father, local personal injury lawyer Lucio Valdez, who had no experience in criminal law. Valdez pleaded guilty to sexual assault in exchange for a 10-year deferred sentence, avoiding a prison term of up to two decades. Valdez's father declined to comment on the case, saying his son "just wants to put this all behind him." Valdez couldn't be reached for comment.
Years after his conviction, Valdez rekindled his friendship with the girl authorities claimed he assaulted, says Stephen Smith, the local attorney who handled the case on appeal.
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