Law professor, UH students collaborate on book detailing flaws in legal system

University of Houston Law Center Professor Sandra Guerra Thompson believes that a new book she compiled with 11 of her students can be a useful tool in reforming the American criminal justice system.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, agrees. About the anthology, titled American Justice in the Age of Innocence, Ellis said, “This incredible book has shone a spotlight on the issue and will undoubtedly help advance the legal reform agenda the book.” The book examines wrongful convictions and the most common causes behind breakdowns in the legal system.

Ellis and Cornelius Dupree Jr., a Dallas man who served 30 years for aggravated robbery before DNA evidence proved his innocence, were guests at a luncheon at UH that celebrated publication of the book in August.

Thompson, 48, calls this “the age of innocence” because recent exoneration of more than 200 wrongly convicted people across the U.S. has renewed public interest in how existing safeguards are insufficient in protecting defendants wrongly prosecuted and convicted for crimes they didn’t commit.

Even as a high school student, Thompson demonstrated a belief in how wrongs can be exposed through the written word. As editor-in-chief of the student newspaper at Nixon High School in Laredo, Thompson published a stinging indictment about how students from low-income families weren’t being prepared for college.

“I was a lower-class student, but I had a middle-class mentality,” she said.

Her parents were public school teachers who often worked two jobs to make ends meet.

However, through honors classes, Thompson mixed with higher-income students whose parents advised her about Ivy League schools.

“I dared to dream, and it worked out,” she said.

Thompson majored in economics at Yale College, then earned a law degree at Yale in 1988.

After two years as a prosecutor at the Manhattan district attorney’s office, she moved to Houston with her first husband, Gilbert Garcia, the current chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County. Their son, Andy, is now 19 and a sophomore at Oberlin College.

The couple divorced in 1993. In 2000, she married Jim Thompson, an engineer, and they live in Braeswood Place.

Sandra Thompson is also director of the Criminal Justice Institute at UH, and she serves on the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions for the Texas Legislature.

Its recommendations led to a new law that mandates changes in eyewitness identification procedures for Texas law enforcement.

In September, Thompson helped develop the procedures as a means of reducing wrongful convictions.

“Eyewitness identifications, custodial interrogations and confessions, jailhouse informants and the use of questionable forensic science have all been linked to wrongful convictions,” explained Thompson.

“My personal belief is that Texas has executed innocent people,” she added.

American Justice in the Age of Innocence includes student-written chapters that address major culprits of wrongful convictions and examine ways that each problem can be remedied.

Thompson co-edited the book with two of her top students, Jennifer Hopgood and Hillary K. Valderrama, who are now practicing attorneys.

The trio continued working on the anthology through its completion and publication by iUniverse, a leading self-publishing company.

At 11:45 a.m.-1 p.m. on Oct. 27, Ellis will host a book signing for Thompson and the student authors in the State Capitol in conjunction with a symposium by the Texas Indigent Defense Commission.

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