Sunday, June 15, 2008

Taking baby steps

About time.

BTW Justice Barbara Hervey for Governor!

Editorial: Watchdog needed for criminal justice
San Antonio Express-News

Innocent people are locked up in Texas prisons for violent crimes they did not commit.

We know this for a fact. We know it because since 1994, DNA evidence has overturned the wrongful convictions of 33 Texans. They served a combined 427 years behind bars instead of the criminals who committed rape and murder.

James Lee Woodard is the latest citizen to be exonerated by DNA evidence. In April, he left prison after serving 27 years for a rape and murder perpetrated by someone else.

Because of this track record and advances in DNA testing, the Editorial Board of the San Antonio Express-News has supported the creation of an innocence commission to review criminal cases statewide. A model for such a commission already exists at the local level in Dallas County, where District Attorney Craig Watkins has worked with the legal and non-profit advocacy community to free people like Woodard.

Gov. Rick Perry disagrees. In a recent letter to the Express-News, he explained his support for enhancing public defender offices to prevent innocent people from being convicted.

That's fine for the future. But it does nothing to help innocent people already wrongfully convicted. About an innocence commission, Perry wrote that he opposes “creating another bureaucratic commission that's all bark and no bite.”

Perry's criticism is off the mark and ignores significant miscarriages of justice that have already occurred. Fortunately, there are lawmakers and judges who are willing to fill the leadership void on this issue.

Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Barbara Hervey, a Republican, has announced the creation of a Texas Criminal Justice Integrity Unit to take a broad look at the justice system in Texas, including issues of wrongful conviction. The bipartisan unit includes legal, law enforcement and political leaders from across the state.

Hervey wrote on behalf of the Court of Criminal Appeals, “While more government does not necessarily mean better government, reflection and willingness to improve does respond to the needs of our system and our citizens.”

It's hard not to read that as a rebuke of Perry's comment about “another bureaucratic commission.”

The integrity unit will work to develop a set of recommendations the Legislature can act upon when it meets in January. In Austin, Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston — who serves as one of the unit's 12 members — has been a consistent advocate for the creation of an innocence commission.

Rather than ignore the plight of the wrongly convicted and trivialize proposals to address the problem, Gov. Perry should join in the bipartisan effort to set innocent people free and put criminals behind bars.