Cox News Service - "EDITORIAL: Serving Justice"
Texas needs a way to learn from its grave mistakes
Gov. Rick Perry says Texas does not need an innocence commission, which, he asserts, would add an unnecessary bureaucracy to state government. But the facts overwhelmingly point the other way. We urge the governor to take another look at establishing a commission that studies ways to bring greater fairness to the state's justice system by examining its mistakes.
Perry's leadership would greatly improve chances that the Legislature would create and finance an innocence commission next year. Also, Perry's backing would send a message to the world that Texas is serious about correcting mistakes that send innocent people to prison and leave criminals on the street.
As it stands, 33 Texans have been exonerated by DNA evidence, all but three occurring after 2000. There have been other exonerations during that period as well, including more than a dozen residents of Tulia who were wrongly convicted on the false testimony of a single law enforcement official and bogus prosecution of a West Texas district attorney.
Texas has paid out more than $8 million since 2001 to dozens of innocent people convicted of and imprisoned for crimes they didn't commit. Those people spent from four to 27 years behind bars for crimes someone else committed.
If those facts and figures aren't persuasive enough, then the governor should listen to those closest to the justice system, including some fellow Republicans. Among those endorsing an innocence commission is Texas Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson, who said, "The state has an interest in protecting its citizens from convictions when citizens are innocent."
"Over 30 people have been exonerated, and there is no institutional response to those incidents," Jefferson said on Tuesday. "When this happens as frequently as it seems to happen in Texas, there ought to be some examination of what went wrong in those cases."
In 2005 and 2007, Jefferson backed the creation of an innocence commission, supporting legislation by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. An innocence commission could offer statutory reforms that reduce preventable errors.
As chief justice of the state's highest civil court, Jefferson said he has discussed the matter with many chief justices across the nation. He said several states have commissions or institutions that Texas could model.
In Sunday's editions, we discussed the main reasons why innocent people have been wrongfully convicted. They include intentional errors by unethical prosecutors or police who suppress evidence or coerce false confessions as well as unintentional mistakes by victims or witnesses who incorrectly identify attackers.
Another prominent Republican, Sharon Keller, the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that she, too, favors a state innocence commission if it does not duplicate the work of other entities.
If any state needs an innocence commission dedicated to preventing people from being sent to prison for crimes they didn't commit, it is Texas. That much is clear. No one who professes to love justice should be satisfied with the status quo that is stealing time and money from the state and its residents.
As the state's chief executive officer, Perry should use his moral and fiduciary duty to help establish such a commission.