Criminal justice reforms have typically been as popular in the state Capitol as rain on the Fourth of July. Just ask Sen. Rodney Ellis.
For years, he would roll in like a thundercloud with ideas to modernize the justice system, and lawmakers would run for cover. Why vote for an Ellis bill, they figured, if it ends up making you look wimpy on crime?
Slowly, over 21 years in the Senate, the Houston Democrat won converts, and reforms came grudgingly, including a convict’s limited right to get evidence tested for DNA.
One stubborn obstacle remained. As evidence piled up of cops, prosecutors and juries making ghastly mistakes and sending innocent men to prison, a common cause emerged: flawed eyewitness identification. Yet starting in 2005, Ellis hit a wall on making reforms, and things didn’t look much more promising as 2011 began.
“But the case has become so compelling, because the exonerations don’t stop,” said Ellis, a lawyer. “Each exoneration becomes a teachable moment.”
Ellis has become a master of stagecraft on the issue, inviting exonerees to Austin, introducing them to lawmakers and skeptical police brass and prosecutors. Those heinously wronged, innocent men — some of them freed from prison only days or weeks before — became instant lobbyists for the cause. It was impossible to stare them in the face, Ellis said, and defend the status quo.
Ellis also had an ally who developed a fire for reform in the House, Rep. Pete Gallego, from the Big Bend country. A former prosecutor, the veteran Democrat had a new strategy this year: move bills out of his criminal justice committee early and get the distractible House to act before it stampeded in directions unknown.
Gallego also got buy-in from key Republicans, including Rep. Will Hartnett of Dallas, where most of the state’s nation-leading number of DNA exonerations have been recorded.
“I’ve seen a slow and gradual shift from ‘Our system does no wrong’ to an acknowledgement that the system has flaws,” Gallego said. “This is the session that the light bulb went on.”
Yes, it did. The House vote was 144-1 to require police to adopt accepted standards for eyewitness lineups. The Senate voted 31-0. Gov. Rick Perry signed the landmark bill June 17.
This year’s Legislature passed other reforms, including Ellis bills to expand access to DNA tests and improve compensation for the wrongly convicted.
The effort took tactical brilliance, political savvy and an evangelist’s zeal. For that, Ellis and Gallego are finalists for 2011 Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year.
Gallego, 50, is moving on politically, seeking a congressional seat from his base in Alpine.
Ellis, 57, who also serves as board chair of the Innocence Project of New York, plans to return to Austin to continue work on modernizing the court system. Not that he thinks the job is ever going to be a picnic.
“It’s not an easy vote,” Ellis said, “but it helps when you’re right.”