Bill proposing Innocence Commission first filed in 2005

January 26, 2013

It was in 2005 that state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) filed a bill calling for an Innocence Commission.

It’s now 2013, and we’re still waiting.

During the 83rd Legislature, Ellis is once again giving it the old college try. He has filed SB 89 calling for an independent commission to identify causes of wrongful convictions and to recommend changes in the criminal justice system to prevent future miscarriages of justice.

In the House, state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio) has filed similar legislation. HB 166 calls for the creation of the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission. Cole, who was black, served 13 years of a 25-year sentence for a rape he did not commit. He died in prison of an asthma-related condition after being forced to work in the fields.

Last September, the nation marked the 300th post-conviction DNA exoneration. Damon Thibodeaux had been on death row in Louisiana since October 1997, wrongfully convicted in the rape and murder of his 14-year-old step-cousin. He was the 18th death row exoneree.

The number of post-conviction DNA exonerations now stands at 302. There have been 48 in Texas. Some who work within the criminal justice system say that most criminal cases don’t actually involve DNA, so we will never know how many lives have been ruined and how many families destroyed by wrongful convictions.

It should be obvious that our justice system is far from perfect.

It is important that citizens and lawmakers understand what an Innocence Commission is not. It is not about being soft on crime. It is not about throwing all prosecutors under the bus. And it is not about taking a stance to abolish the death penalty. It is merely about justice.

Eleven states have created commissions to examine wrongful convictions and to propose reforms. The North Carolina Actual Innocence Commission is considered a national model for effectiveness and reform. In 2003, the Illinois Legislature passed into law 85 recommendations made by an innocence commission.

A decade after other states got on board with initiatives to protect justice, it appears as if Texas hasn’t even arrived at the station.

The Hood County News is sponsoring “Justice for All,” a series about the justice system that is being offered to our friends at community newspapers across the state. We will encourage those newspapers to keep tabs on where their own elected officials stand on this issue, just as we will keep tabs on ours.

There is no justice for all if there is injustice even for one.

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