Commission to Review Wrongful Convictions Passes House Floor in Texas

A bill to study the causes of the numerous wrongful convictions we see in Texas passed through the House floor this month – but not without opposition.

House Bill 166, has been put forward by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio. It would create the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission, named after a defendant who died in prison serving time for a sexual assault it was later discovered he had not committed.

Sadly, these kinds of cases are all too common in Texas. While some of those who are wrongfully convicted get a belated taste of freedom, Cole never saw the world outside a prison again.

The Commission would be tasked with reviewing cases like his, finding the root cause of the wrongful conviction and making recommendations to avert future miscarriages of justice.

“Backers of the measure have tried to move the bill through in previous sessions without success,” reported the Austin Chronicle.

Finally the measure has a better chance of success and is attracting bipartisan support. Even so, on April 23, 2013, the newspaper noted a number of probing and hostile questions from the House floor, mostly from Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, who questioned language within the measure.

He asked why would the Commission not be subject to sunset until 2025. He also questioned why the bill mentioned “wrongful execution” if the bill was about wrongful convictions.

An amendment by Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, reduced the time to Sunset to eight years, in 2021.

Phillips also “took exception to a provision that would allow courts in future proceedings to use findings of the commission – including whether judges or lawyers participated in misconduct leading to the conviction,” reported the Austin Chronicle.

Cole was accused of raping a college student in 1985. He spent 14 years in prison and died a decade before DNA testing cleared him of the crime in 2009.

It’s just one of a number of high profile wrongful convictions in Texas. Another well known case is that of Michael Morton, who was exonerated after serving 25 years wrongfully convicted of his wife’s murder.

This month a district judge found probable cause the “prosecutor in his case tampered with evidence and concealed records,” reported ABC news.

“Hopefully this will make it somewhat easier and give some motivation to state legislators to pass one of the bills that are before them right now,” Morton was reported as telling ABC. “So hopefully what happened to me doesn’t happen to you.”

This session has seen the Senate approve the “Michael Morton Act” which requires prosecutors to share more evidence with defense teams. The bill is now headed to the state House, where lawmakers who back the Cole commission remain optimistic the added attention will help more wrongful conviction legislation to be enacted.

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.