Recently in the media there have been numerous stories about the exoneration of inmates from the Texas prison system. Texas has had more exonerations than any other state and Dallas more exonerations than any other city. Most of these exonerations have come about as a result of the noble efforts of the Texas Innocence Project
. This nonprofit organization has sought cases in which an inmate’s credible claims of innocence could be corroborated by DNA testing that was not available at the time of the offense. Given that most credible claims of innocence are not subject to such verification this phenomenon strongly suggests there are many innocent people languishing in prison.
Why is Dallas ground zero for these exonerations? I think there are two principal reasons. The most often cited reason is that Dallas County maintains its evidence in relation to closed cases longer than any other county. This means many more defendants from Dallas County can verify there claims than in other counties.
The other reason is more troubling. In my opinion there exists in Texas institutional hostility to the idea of exoneration. In most cases Texas judges have resisted efforts to have the State make evidence available for the defense for DNA testing. In general, in the numerous efforts I have been involved in to free someone unjustly imprisoned, I have found most Texas judges reluctant to even give my claim a fair hearing.
Why is this so? In Texas judges are elected. As a result most judges come from the ranks of the prosecutor’s offices and run on a tough on crime platform rather than a do justice platform. Acknowledging the incarceration of the innocent is simply bad politics. In addition, most judges feel overwhelmed with their case load that is generated by new arrests and charges. They have a natural reluctance to carefully reexamine cases once litigated.
I don’t think these observations fully explain what is happening but appear to me to be two important contributing factors. I only hope the public awareness of these exonerations will make more people interested in electing fair judges rather than tough judges.