Would a new state commission finally keep us from throwing innocents in prison?
Published: March 13, 2013
Other exonerees who testified spoke of struggling to cope with their wrongful convictions. Johnny Pinchback, a Dallas-area man convicted after he was misidentified in a police lineup, spent 27 years behind bars for the rape of two teenage girls. His father died of cancer while he was in prison. "That's awful," he told lawmakers. "I didn't get to see him for the last time."
Christopher Scott, wrongfully convicted of murder due to faulty eyewitness testimony, told lawmakers, "It's a miracle that I'm standing here in front of y'all. I could have been dead."
Given the outpouring of public support already seen from lawmakers this session, McClendon's exoneration review commission seems destined for passage. Among those critical of the bill, to some surprise, is Jeff Blackburn, Innocence Project of Texas' founder and chief legal counsel. Blackburn told the Current earlier this year he fears the commission would provide lawmakers an excuse to turn away from real problems plaguing the criminal justice system.
"Legislators can't get anybody out of prison," Blackburn told the Current recently, saying lawmakers should instead boost funding to innocence projects and law school clinics that actually unearth and appeal problematic cases. "What we need is muscle, and money, and government backing to actually get this work done," Blackburn said.
Shannon Edmonds, director of government relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, also took issue with McClendon's legislation. Edmonds questioned whether an exoneration review commission is even needed, saying innocence projects at the state's law-schools already file reports for each case they work — it's worth noting that many of the state's exonerations haven't come from those law schools, and therefore haven't had similar review.
Edmonds also worried any exoneration review commission would become "politicized," referencing the state Forensic Science Commission, which Edmonds claimed was hijacked by death penalty foes soon after its creation.
"What we saw when it (the FSC) was created is it immediately became a vehicle for attacking the death penalty," Edmonds told lawmakers last week. "If you're worried about it being politicized, if you're looking for that mythical innocent person who has been executed in Texas, this could be a vehicle to do that if groups wanted to politicize this commission."
Edmonds was referencing the contentious FSC hearings over the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, whose conviction and 2004 execution was based on now-discredited arson science.
Columbia University law school professor James Liebman and a team of students last year published a report on another, to use Edmonds' term, "mythical" case, presenting a strong argument that Texas in 1989 wrongly executed Carlos DeLuna, who was sentenced to death for the killing of a Corpus Christi gas station attendant.
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