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Dallas Morning News - "WJ: It's time that the state investigates cases that resulted in DNA-evidence exoneration"


Location: Dallas, TX

by Wallace Jefferson

After serving nearly 27 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Charles Allen Chatman recently became the 30th Texan since 2001 whose conviction was overturned after DNA analysis.

Even one wrongful conviction should be a shocking aberration in our system of justice, which is based on the principle that "it is better that the guilty go free than the innocent be jailed." These 30 cases come from the small subset of convictions in which genetic evidence has been preserved by the state and therefore raise the deeply troubling - and largely untestable - possibility of a proportionate number of erroneous convictions in which no DNA testing is possible.With this in mind, I commend Sen. Rodney Ellis' proposal that the Texas Legislature create a commission to investigate each instance of DNA exoneration and assess the likelihood of wrongful convictions in other cases, so that we can begin to reduce the chances that innocent Texans are incarcerated.

Like scientists probing the causes of cancer, we should examine erroneous convictions to determine the probable sources of error and isolate common factors. The results of this inquiry would give state and local governments tools to improve our criminal justice system and extend the benefits DNA testing brings to cases where genetic evidence is unavailable.

Given the individualized nature of our criminal court system, a statewide commission, with appropriate resources, would be an ideal source of powerful reform. Other states, including Pennsylvania, Illinois, North Carolina and Wisconsin, have adopted similar proposals which have, in many instances, led to statutory reforms that help ensure the fairness and accuracy of criminal justice.

I have advocated the creation of such a commission in my two most recent State of the Judiciary addresses to the Legislature, and I call for it again today. The commission's benefits would far exceed any costs. Because it would be limited in scope to those cases in which there has already been an exoneration, such a commission need not conflict with the court system which, under Mr. Ellis' proposal, wisely remains the appropriate venue for individual claims of innocence.

Comprised of experts from all sides of the issue, including law enforcement personnel, forensics experts, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and law professors, the commission would profit from many and diverse perspectives, thus promising a fair and thorough evaluation. Nor would it require significant new resources: commission members would likely serve without pay, and much of the work could be performed by existing personnel.

Further, no one should fear the "soft on crime" label for supporting a commission of the sort I have in mind. Every wrongful conviction leaves the true criminal unpunished and free to commit other crimes, while undermining our faith in the justice system, which is so essential to an orderly society.

The commission's findings and recommendations would benefit both sides of the criminal bar and promote public confidence in the swift and sure enforcement of our laws. Understanding the causes of wrongful convictions will not only allow defense attorneys to defend innocent clients more effectively, but it will also give prosecutors renewed confidence that their public service enhances public safety.

For while some see an overturned conviction as proof of prosecutorial misconduct, the vast majority of prosecutors are committed not to winning at any cost, but to advancing the truth. They, too, are harmed if, at the end of the day and after observing all appropriate safeguards, they doubt that justice has been served.

We cannot turn back the clock. Mr. Chatman's lost freedom can never be retrieved. Yet we owe it to him - and to the people of Texas - to convert this injustice into a benefit for all.

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