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Friday, May 09, 2008

Reports from Summit on Wrongful Convictions

Here is an excerpt from a report from Gloria Rubac from yesterday's Summit on Wrongful Convictions:

Six of us with the Abolition Movement went to Austin today for the Summit on Wrongful Convictions sponsored by Texas Senator Rodney Ellis.

Today was an amazing day -- meeting 9 exonerees, meeting the Dallas DA that has the courage to do the right thing, speaking with legislators who agree with us that DA's that commit misconduct should go to jail. We met with Jeff Blackburn, attorney and founder of the Innocence Project of Texas who is working with the Dallas DA and has agreed to work with us to get help for Howard Guidry, an innocent man on death row.

Regina Guidry did an interview with German TV, in German, I assume, about Howard.

The few people not enjoying the day were Roe Wilson, Harris County DA who handles post conviction capital murder appeals. Also Rissie Owens, chair of the Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Sen John Whitmire made Roe Wilson look like she needed Pepto Bismol, according to Ester King. And Lee Greenwood took both of Rissie Owens hands in hers and spoke to her about her allowing the murder of her son, Joseph Nichols, a man who had killed no one. I hope that keeps Ms. Owens awake tonight and every other night. Looking into the eyes of a mother in pain whose child you have murdered couldn't be easy if you have any sense of humanity. And we don't know if she does or not.

We got a commitment from State Rep. Terri Hodge to attend the 9th Annual March to Stop Executions in Houston on October 25.
From the AP:
Perhaps the most notorious case of bad eyewitness ID came from James Waller, who was identified by a rape victim by his eyes and the sound of his voice. The rapist in that case was described as being 5-foot-8. Waller, who is 6-foot-4, spent 10 years in prison.

Among the more intriguing reforms mentioned was a crime lab oversight group that would have the same sort of authority health inspectors wield at restaurants. Judge Barbara Hervey of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals referred to the idea as a pet project of hers, adding that Texas would be the first state in the nation to enact such a plan.

Along the same lines was the idea of regional crime and DNA labs operated independently of police departments, a topic broached by Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt. That idea was also favored by state Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Cheryl Johnson, who acknowledged that crime labs run by police departments can present conflicts.

Reforms in Dallas County also drew praise. Under District Attorney Craig Watkins, Dallas has begun a program in which law students, supervised by the Innocence Project of Texas, are reviewing hundreds of requests by inmates for post-conviction DNA testing.

"It can be argued that Texas ... may have one of the worst criminal justice systems in this country," Watkins said. "We have to start where we have the most problems."

Jeff Blackburn, the chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, also suggested overhauling how the courts deal with writs filed by inmates. Blackburn pointed out that James Woodard, who was released last week, was labeled an abuser of the system after filing six writs and two requests for DNA testing.

But the event's most powerful moments belonged to those who had been exonerated. Billy Smith talked about how he considered suicide once or twice a year during his 19-year prison stay for a rape he did not commit. Waller spoke of his wife, who was eight months pregnant, dying in a car accident on the way to one of his court hearings.

"I'm 52 years old and I have no kids," Waller said. "Texas took that away from me."

The applause was loudest when Giles tore up his sex offender registration card, something he had to carry for 15 years while he was on parole before getting exonerated. He ripped it up, he said, because he had a new card to carry: a voter registration card.

"You talk about being afraid, being scared, being locked up, going to jail," Giles said. "That's a nightmare that sometimes you never overcome."

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