New bills focus on wrongful convictions

TX Senator Rodney Ellis wants to create commission

The wrongful conviction of Michael Morton could lead to changes in state law.

Houston Senator Rodney Ellis has filed two bills in the aftermath of the Morton case, that would address how the state examines wrongful convictions and how prosecutors and defense attorneys share evidence.

“It’s time to make some very meaningful reforms in Texas,” Ellis said Monday. “Prosecutors have a tough job to do, but that job is not just to get someone. It’s to get the right someone.”

Morton spent almost 25 years in prison for the murder of his wife, Christine, who was beaten to death in their Williamson County home. DNA evidence proved Morton was not the killer in 2011 and he was exonerated and set free. Morton and his attorneys believe evidence that could have set him free was withheld from the original defense attorneys in the case. Then prosecutor Ken Anderson now faces a court of inquiry into his actions in the case. Although he has apologized to Morton, he insists he did not intentionally withhold evidence in the case. Anderson is now a district Judge in Williamson County.

Senate Bill 89 would create a Texas Innocence Commission to examine post-conviction exonerations.

“When an airplane goes down, we don’t sort of take the position- well things happen,” said Ellis. “Uou put together an independent group of experts- not with an eye towards pointing an accusative finger, but to ask hard, probative questions about what happened. Why did it happen? So you can try to keep it from happening again.”

The Commission would be made up of nine members, including law school faculty, law enforcement personnel, members of the House of Representatives and Senate, the judiciary, forensic science field, a prosecuting attorney, a criminal defense lawyer, and on a rotating basis, the president of the Texas Center for Actual Innocence at the University of Texas School of Law, the director of the Innocence Project at the University of Houston Law Center, or the director of the Innocence Project at the Texas Tech University School of Law.

Innocence Commissions on criminal justice review commissions have been formed in California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

“We now know that we’ve had innocent people on Texas’ death row,” said Anthony Graves, who spent 18 years on death row for six murders he did not commit. “To think that we found this out and we continue to execute without pausing to set up some type of commission to find out how did this happen, it just kind of blows my mind.”

Ellis is also proposing to create the Automatic Disclosure Bill, which would create a statewide standard for disclosure in criminal cases.

“If the prosecution knows that there is evidence that would show that someone is innocent or clearly could exonerate someone- the prosecution has the responsibility to let the defense and also let the court know about that,” said Ellis.

The bills will be introduced when the 83rd legislative session begins in January 2013.

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