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Justice wants commission on bad convictions

March 6, 2013 at 11 p.m.
Updated March 5, 2013 at 9:06 p.m.

No DNA testing exonerations reported in Crossroads area

BY JESSICA PRIESTJPRIEST@VICAD.COMMost Crossroads area pros ecutors cannot recall a time when untested DNA evi dence meant vindication for a person wrongfully convicted.

They were responding to the address of State Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jeffer son, who told legislators in Austin Wednesday the high number of Texans exonerat ed by DNA testing may erode the public's faith in the legal system.

Victoria Criminal District Attorney Stephen Tyler did not recall any convictions in Victoria being overturned be cause of DNA testing during his tenure. He applauded Michael Morton's efforts to shine a light on the possible problem.

"He is not being petty about it even though he has every right to be," Tyler said.

Tyler said police need to be continually trained on what is considered Brady evidence, or evidence that tends to prove the defendant not guilty, and what to do after its found. He also called for more research on the relia bility of certain forensic sci ence.

In 2009, a Yoakum man was mistakenly arrested after a police officer captured his scent on a piece of gauze and used it in a dog scent line up, which linked him to a report ed sexual assault.

DeWitt County Criminal District Attorney Michael Sheppard said fortunately the charges were dropped against that man after they discovered there were some problems with that type of proof. He said it was the first and last time investigators from his area utilized that method.

Sheppard, who also prose cutes cases in Refugio and Goliad counties, said the number of people exonerated of violent crimes in Texas was not altogether surprising given how large the state is.

"I don't think it's a reflec tion on our justice system. I think it's a reflection of the number of cases we prose cute," he said. "I'm not sure how meaningful a statistic that is and what I don't know is where Texas rates in per capita basis or how many ex onerations there have been per convictions."

Bobby Bell, the criminal district attorney for Jackson County, also wouldn't com ment directly on the figure Jefferson reported.

Bell has seen DNA evi dence grow more sophisticat ed throughout his 30-year ca reer. He said most jurors, who have caught their fair share of CSI episodes, almost demand to see it now.

"When I first started doing DNA, you had to prove up the scientific theories and princi ples of it," he said, adding that now those items are test ed at the Department of Pub lic Safety, not a private lab. "It is every prosecutors worst nightmare to get the wrong guy."

Tyler agreed, urging any one who knows of wrongdo ing to come forward.

"If we have a problem, we handle it in the daylight, and we're honest about it. I think that's what everyone in Victo ria aspires to do," he said.

AUSTIN (AP) - State Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson called for a special commission to investigate wrongful convictions, suggesting Wednesday that public faith in the legal system may be undermined given that Texas leads the nation in prisoners set free by DNA testing.

In his biannual address to the Legislature, the chief justice of Texas' highest civil court told lawmakers that "if innocent people are rotting in prison for crimes they did not commit, we certainly have not achieved justice for all."

Jefferson pointed to statistics showing that over the last 25 years, 117 Texans have been exonerated - 47 of those by DNA testing, the most nationwide. Those figures are not new, but Jefferson used them to again call for "a commission to investigate each instance of exoneration, to assess the likelihood of wrongful convictions in future cases and to establish statewide reforms."

Though the Texas Court of Appeals is the highest criminal court, Jefferson was speaking for the entire judiciary in his speech.

Texas lawmakers came close to establishing an innocence commission during the last session two years ago. Jefferson saluted Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, a San Antonio Democrat, for sponsoring a similar measure this year. He also hailed Houston Democratic Sen. Rodney Ellis, a national chairman of the Innocence Project, which specializes in using DNA testing to overturn wrongful convictions.

Jefferson said cases overturned by new DNA evidence "leave us with the distinct impression that we today suffer from a systemic deficit in our collective approach to the way we decide how to administer criminal justice." He mentioned the case of Michael Morton, an Austin grocery store inventory manager who spent 25 years in prison for his wife's slaying before DNA evidence exonerated him in 2011.

The chief justice also noted that Texas has a "top-notch judicial system" but only for those who can afford legal services. He urged more funding for state legal aid programs and said that despite some recent gains, Texas still ranks 48th in per capita funding for indigent defense.

Jefferson also criticized officials for over-ticketing in Texas schools, saying "we have elected to give our children tickets for the kind of misbehavior that, in the old days, landed you and me in the principal's office."

He said an estimated 30,000 misdemeanor tickets are issued annually statewide, adding "we are criminalizing our children for non-violent offenses."

"We must keep our children in school and out of our courts to give them the opportunity to follow a path of success, not a path toward prison," Jefferson said, drawing sustained applause.



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