Friday, May 25, 2007

The death of innocence

One wonders what Texas legislators are thinking. We've seen case after case after case of wrongful convictions in Texas -- indeed, as the editorial below notes, 28 people have been exonerated through DNA testing or some other means and released from prison. That's more than 10 percent of the DNA exonerations that have occured nationally.

Yet the Texas Legislature, once again, has allowed a bill that would have created an Innocence Commission to die. This is something that both death penalty proponents and opponents should be able to agree on -- we need to find out why an inordinate number of innocent people are being sent to prison and for the sake of justice, for the sake of decency we need to do something about it.

Here the San Antonio Express-News weighs in:

Again, innocence panel, justice not state priority

Sadly, the Texas Legislature has failed for the third time to pass important legislation regarding the wrongfully convicted.

A bill authored by Sen. Rodney Ellis would have created a 9-member commission to review cases in which felons are exonerated through DNA testing or some other means.

There is ample need for such a commission.

So far in Texas, 28 men have been exonerated since 2001 through DNA testing. Nationwide, that number is 200.

Rep. Aaron Pea, chairman of the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence, said the bill failed due to a lack of votes. 4 members, including Pea, voted for it and 2 voted against it. The bill needed 5 ayes to pass.

3 House committee members Barbara Mallory Caraway, Terri Hodge and Paul Moreno were absent during that vote.

All 3 have expressed support for the bill, and it's likely they would have voted in favor of it had the hearing been held in a timely fashion, according to the bill's House sponsor, Rep. Senfronia Thompson.

The committee has had the bill since April 24. It should not have languished as it did, and that is Pea's responsibility.

An innocence commission is imperative, particularly in a state like Texas, where the death penalty is supported and applied with fervor. If there are cases where prisoners have been wrongfully executed, shouldn't there be a commission tasked with determining how?

Serious questions have arisen, for example, in the case of Ruben Cantu, a San Antonio man who was executed in 1993. The key eyewitness, Juan Moreno, has recanted his testimony. There is speculation that he was pressured into fingering Cantu after claiming Cantu was not the burglar who shot him and murdered his companion.

If Cantu was innocent, it's too late for him. But it's not too late to learn how that case may have taken a wrong turn.

It's bad enough that people are serving years in prison or possibly being executed for crimes they did not commit.

That this state doesn't care enough to determine how or why is just as appalling.
(source: Editorial, San Antonio Express-News)


Anonymous said...

I've lived in Texas for 26 years, and can't believe that this is still going on. I don't know if it's deliberate or not, but with the Texas justice I could never vote the death penaly for anyone. Hopefully the Innocence Project will embarass enough people to ban the death penalty.

Space Puppy

Anonymous said...

Texas State Rep. Senfronia Thompson hit the nail on the head when she said on her blog, "Somewhere along the lines I feel that some of the members of the Criminal Jurisprudence committee have lost sight of the importance of this issue." She is right. Unfortunately, this was a lost opportunity. There were 7 Democrats on this committee and only 2 Republicans. Thompson was the House sponsor and she has said that she had the votes on the committee to pass it. She did a great job and came close but missed. She might have succeeded with a little help.

The House Committee where this bill died had several new members who are inexperienced and lack a lot of background knowledge on the issue.

This bill could have been passed this session. If we are going to avoid missing opportunities like this in the future, then the national leaders need to send more funding to Texas.

So, in addition to wondering "what Texas legislators are thinking", you should also ask what are people thinking when they send tens of thousands of dollars in anti-death penalty grant money to states that don't even have the death penalty, instead of sending more money to Texas.

In particular, Texas needs funding for a hardworking, competent paid professional lobbyist working on death penalty issues when the Texas Legislature is in session six months every two years. The rest of the time, Texas needs funding for a full-time grassroots anti-death penalty organizer.

This was a missed opportunity, but it did not have to be missed.