The editorial board of the Dallas Morning News yesterday called on lawmakers to support Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis’ proposal to form a state innocence commission in Texas. The influential paper’s editorial comes just four days after the historic Texas Summit on Wrongful Convictions, which brought together lawmakers and criminal justice leaders to examine why so many innocent people are ending up in Texas prisons.
Texas has had more DNA exonerations than any other state with 31 in ten counties. In Dallas alone the 18th person, James Lee Woodard, was freed two weeks ago after serving 27 years for a murder he did not commit.
“No county has borne more shame than Dallas County for the outrage of miscarriage of justice,” the Dallas Morning News wrote. “No county has a greater responsibility to change Texas law to prevent tragic mistakes in the future.”
An innocence commission would examine what went wrong in each of these cases and make recommendations on how the system could be fixed to prevent more wrongful convictions. Among the problems a commission could address in Texas are eyewitness misidentification, harsh interrogation tactics that result in false confessions, unethical prosecutorial practices, and proper DNA testing. The Morning News said such a commission was “needed badly in Texas.”
The concept is a sound one and has been adopted by at least five states.
News flashes about Dallas cases obscure the fact that local exonerations would not be achieved were it not for the sound practice of storing biological evidence in all criminal cases. No other Texas county has done that; one can only imagine how many wrongly convicted people from the 253 other Texas counties have no shot at DNA exoneration. A special commission could recommend best practices for evidence storage, among a long list of other law enforcement procedures.
The editorial called for “robust support” for Sen. Ellis’ bill and recommended that a Dallas Republican should sponsor it in the House where a similar bill last year was killed before making it to the floor.
Read the editorial.
(The Dallas Morning News, 5/11/08)