Task force to serve as watchdog for Texas criminal justice system


Task force to serve as watchdog for Texas criminal justice system
08:53 PM CDT on Wednesday, June 4, 2008
djennings@dallasnew s.com
jemily@dallasnews. com

A month after a handful of Dallas exonerees traveled to the state Capitol to tell their stories of wrongful conviction, the state's highest criminal court announced the establishment of a task force to address problems within the criminal justice system.

The new Texas Criminal Justice Integrity Unit is "good for Texas," said Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins. "It's putting policy aside and looking at the criminal justice system."

The integrity unit was organized by Judge Barbara Hervey of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Mr. Watkins said Judge Hervey recruited him to join the group this week after telling him six months ago that she was watching his office's conviction integrity unit.

"I want this to be more than a study group," Judge Hervey said. "We've studied already, so now it's time to act."

But some observers are skeptical that the group, which does not yet have aninitial meeting scheduled and has no official power, will do more than talk.

"I would have been more comfortable with the Legislature doing this because they're immediately charged with writing the laws," said Keith Hampton, legislative chairman for the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.

"I'm very glad that it's continuing to raise awareness," he said. "I think that's very positive. ... It's just that I'm interested in results. I want to see new law and a new culture by this time next year."

Changing the law takes time, said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who has pushed for creation of a state innocence commission for years. The new integrity unit is not that commission, but it's "a big step in the right direction," he said.

"You've got to develop a consensus," he said. "[Legislators] have got to have some structure. They've got to have some buy-in from people in positions of stature."

The integrity unit plans to address issues such as raising the quality of attorneys, implementing procedures to improve eyewitness identification, improving crime lab reliability and reforming standards for collection, preservation and storage of evidence.

Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, said the new unit does not go far enough. He said he would like to see it provide greater access to the courts for the wrongfully convicted.

Currently, those seeking exoneration are limited in most cases to one writ of habeas corpus after their direct appeal. They are often written by inmates without attorneys. Any reform, he said, must include allowing inmates claiming innocence to have access to the courthouse through more writs and attorneys.

James Woodard of Dallas, who recently was exonerated after spending 27 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, was labeled an abuser of the appeals system for his repeated attempts to get relief.

"Everybody knows you can go to prison being innocent," Mr. Woodard said. "It sounds to me like [the court] is trying to do a little damage control."

Bill Allison, law professor and director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the University of Texas, admits that the unit he's joining is "not a group of people who in and of itself can do a thing. We have no power."

But that's not to say it lacks punch.

"I do think it will be more than just talking," he said of the group. "If we come out of this next legislative session without something to show for it, I'm going to be very disappointed. "

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


AP Texas News
June 4, 2008, 4:55PM

Texas high court creates integrity unit

By JIM VERTUNO Associated Press Writer © 2008 The Associated Press

AUSTIN An appeals court in the state that leads the nation in both executions and wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence said Wednesday it will create a new integrity unit to examine and correct problems in the justice system.

The study group was announced by Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Barbara Hervey, whose court handles death penalty appeals and other criminal cases.

Hervey will be a member of the Texas Criminal Justice Integrity Unit and said its creation is "a call to action" for reform. Since 2001, 33 Texas inmates have been exonerated using DNA testing, including 17 in Dallas County.

Key issues to be considered include:

_Improving eyewitness testimony. Experts say unreliable testimony is the No. 1 problem in wrongful convictions.

_Reforming standards for collecting, preserving and storing evidence, which may be needed for future testing during an appeal.

_Eliminating improper interrogations and protect against false confessions.

_Improving crime lab reliability.

_Improving the qualify of lawyers appointed to poor defendants.

One issue not listed was use of the death penalty. Of the 42 executions in the United States last year, Texas accounted for 26. Texas has executed 405 inmates since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1982.

Hervey said the integrity unit is not a suggestion that she and the other judges on the court believe an innocent person may have been executed in the past.

While some appeals from death row cases may involve the same issues, "I don't want to treat death row claims about innocence any different that somebody else's claims," Hervey said.

Some inmate advocates were not impressed by the new integrity unit.

Jeff Blackburn, the chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, said the panel is tackling issues that have already been clearly identified as problems. The courts must consider overhauling how the courts deal with appeals filed by inmates who claim innocence but may not have DNA evidence to support them, Blackburn said, estimating there may be thousands.

James Woodard, a Dallas man who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, had been labeled an abuser of the appeals system for his repeated attempts to get someone in the system to pay attention to his case before it finally landed with the Innocence Project.

Woodard was sentenced to life in prison in 1981 and won his release earlier this year.

"Everybody knows you can go to prison being innocent," Woodard said. "It sounds to me like (the court) is trying to do a little damage control."

The integrity unit could meet for the first time next month, Hervey said. Some of the reforms may need an act of the Legislature.

Although all nine members of the court are Republicans, Hervey said the integrity unit is not a forum for a particular group or political party.

Initial members include state Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat who has long advocated criminal justice reforms; district attorneys from Dallas and El Paso; law enforcement; defense attorneys; a district judge; and a member of Gov. Rick Perry's staff.

"We've reached a tipping point in Texas in terms of wrongful convictions, " Ellis said. "We have to make sure the mistakes that have happened don't continue to happen."

Woodard said the integrity unit should include one of the exonerated inmates.

"They need someone who has been there, who has walked through the practical side of it," Woodard said.

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, who was elected in 2006, said the integrity unit could put Texas at the forefront of reforms nationally. The panel probably will discuss use of the death penalty in the context of how to make sure someone isn't wrongfully executed.

"What safeguards can we put in place from an appeals standpoint to make sure we've done everything before that ultimate decision is made?" Watkins said.