House passes innocence group bill; Keffer reverses stance

May 4, 2013

Five days after a former prosecutor was arrested in the Texas courthouse where he currently sits on the bench as an elected district judge – accused of withholding exculpatory evidence in a wrongful conviction case – the Texas House of Representatives passed a bill calling for an Innocence Commission.

The Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission, if approved by the Texas Senate, will be a nine-member panel that will review exoneration cases to determine what went wrong with the system. It will not intervene in any pending cases.

The Legislature is considering several justice-related bills in the wake of 306 post-conviction DNA exonerations nationwide – the highest number being from Texas. Sources within the justice system say that the majority of criminal cases that result in convictions do not involve DNA.

“There have been 117 exonerations in Texas and, altogether, the Exonerees have spent over 1,000 years in prison for crimes they did not commit,” the bill’s author, Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio), stated in a press release after the House passed the bill 115 to 28.

“These wrongful convictions resulted in the tragic loss of the person’s family, job, parental rights, and other attributes of life, not to mention the effect on the families and friends of the innocent.”

McClendon had Republican support. House members Myra Crownover (R-Denton) and Jeff Leach (R-Plano) were joint authors of the bill. McClendon has tried in three previous Legislative sessions to push the bill through.

HB 166 calls for any findings of possible prosecutorial misconduct to be referred by the Commission to the appropriate oversight agencies for review and action.

The Texas District and County Attorneys Association last September issued a 31-page report challenging data compiled by innocence groups pertaining to prosecutorial misconduct. “Setting the Record Straight on Prosecutorial Misconduct” can be accessed through the Association’s website, www.tdcaa.com.

local rep’s vote

Hood County’s representative in the House, Jim Keffer (R-Eastland), reversed his earlier stance opposing McClendon’s HB 166 and was among those who voted in favor of it.

In January, Keffer said that, while he “supports the intentions behind creating the Texas Innocence Commission,” he was hesitant to create “more government bureaucracy and fiscal burdens.”

“Instead, we need to encourage our lawmakers and private citizens to work within our current system to pass meaningful changes that address these issues,” he said.

Late last week, Keffer issued this statement regarding his vote on HB 166:

“We are blessed with three branches of government that establish a separation of powers and afford us our liberty. Though our judicial branch is effective and most often fair, we acknowledge that errors can occur that need to be addressed.

“I believe the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission will watch over our current process. There is no cost to the taxpayers, but there is an added benefit to protect the wrongly excused.”

HB 166 has been sent to the Senate chamber, where it will be considered by the Criminal Justice Committee, according to Meagan Harding, a legislative aide in McClendon’s office.

An Innocence Commission bill authored by state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) is not considered a “companion bill,” Harding said. It is similar to HB 166, but not identical.

State Sen. Brian Birdwell (R-Granbury) stated in January that he was “hesitant to back the creation of a new governmental commission whose specific functions, authority, oversight and expenses are undetermined.”

Earlier this week, Birdwell’s chief of staff, Ben Stratmann, indicated in an email that the senator continues to oppose the legislation.

“I don’t know that anything has changed beyond what he shared last time,” Stratmann wrote.

cole’s legacy

The proposed Commission is named after college student and Army veteran Timothy Cole, who was wrongfully convicted of sexually assaulting several Texas Tech co-eds in the mid-1980s.

Cole died in prison of an asthma-related heart attack after being forced to work in the fields. He was in the 13th year of a 25-year prison sentence.

Despite repeated letters from prison inmate Jerry Wayne Johnson to justice officials in Lubbock County stating that he, not Cole, was guilty of the crimes, no action was taken until the Innocence Project of Texas became involved.

On April 7, 2009, Cole became the first person in Texas history to receive a posthumous exoneration. He is also the first exoneree in the nation to have a historical marker at his gravesite. He is buried in Fort Worth.

Cole’s case was also the first time a court of inquiry was held to reveal a wrongful conviction. It was a court of inquiry that led to the arrest two weeks ago of former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson in the wrongful conviction of Michael Morton. Anderson maintains he did nothing wrong.

Morton spent 25 years in prison for the 1986 murder of his wife. He was released in October 2011 after DNA testing pointed to another man, Mark Alan Norwood.

In late March, Norwood was found guilty of capital murder in the bludgeoning death of Christine Morton, and sentenced to life behind bars. Michael Morton was in the courtroom to hear the verdict.

Anderson, who was released on bond, faces criminal contempt and tampering charges for allegedly failing to turn over to Morton’s defense attorneys evidence pointing to his innocence.

Kathy Cruz is a staff writer at the Hood County News in Granbury. She can be reached at [email protected]

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