Monday, April 6, 2009

Justice for Exonerees: Texas is Getting Closer

Earlier this year, I joined Dr. Jaime Paige, from the University of Texas at Arlington and representatives from the Innocence Project of Texas in a trip to Austin to speak with legislators about the plight of citizens wrongfully convicted and exonerated from incarceration. We, and her interns, joined the exonerees, their attorneys and lobbyists who had organized a two day legislative work agenda in which we spoke to lawmakers about reform of interrogation practices, increased compensation, and support services for formerly incarcerated men found innocent after decades behind bars.

It is gratifying to know that progress is being made on all fronts. Dr. Paige, her interns and I first went to speak with State Senator Royce West about the vital need for support services. So far Texas leads the nation in men freed from prison through DNA evidence. While it is incredibly important to correct this injustice, it is not enough to open the doors to their prison cells, place a comforting arm around their shoulders and provide a heartfelt apology. Nor is it enough, to recognize, as one city official told me, that 'no amount of money can make up for what has happened to them.' The fact is the state has an obligation to help these men get on their feet and reintgrate into society. And there is no way to fulfill that obligation without spending money.

Shortly after our visit, Senator West filled Senate Bill 1848, designed to, "...develop a comprehensive plan to ensure the successful reentry and reintegration of wrongfully imprisoned persons into the community following [the exonerees'] discharge..." The bill includes compensation for physical and mental health care services, as well as job training.

The bill has made it out of the Senate Committee (without opposition, by the way!) and is on its way to a vote by the full senate after which it must wind its way through the House and make its way to the Governor's desk.

Senator Rodney Ellis, Democrat from Houston, who has long been a champion of this fight, is pushing through the legislation which will provide an innocence commission to identify faults in interrogation procedures, including eyewitness testimonies and how lineups are used in arrests and convictions.

We're not there yet, but we're closer than we were. You can read more about the progress being made in this Dallas Morning News editorial.

Congratulations to Dr. Paige, to her interns and to the Innocence Project of Texas for their incredibly hard work. Congratulations to those incredibly brave men who are able to endure the pain and stigma of their wrongful conviction with such incredible grace and courage. They continue to be a source of inspiration!

Thanks to Senator Royce West, for having the political courage to lead this charge. Great job Royce, absolutely great!

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