Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A bill to create an exoneration commission that would study false convictions at a standstill in Texas Legislature

As reported here:

FORT WORTH — Cory Session isn’t giving up.

A bill to create an exoneration commission that would study false convictions — named for his brother, Tim Cole, a Fort Worth man found innocent of a rape conviction years after he died in prison — appears to be at a standstill in the Texas Legislature.

Less than a week after he exchanged heated words with a state senator who opposes the bill, Session said he hopes to shake the measure loose today when he and his mother, Ruby Cole Session, visit the Texas Capitol.

“I have not given up,” said Session, who works with the Innocence Project of Texas. “I have not given up since 1986, when he was convicted. I won’t give up now. I’m very hopeful ... that we will be able to prevail.

“If it’s not this session, then I’ll be back.”

Debate over this bill grew heated last week during a committee hearing, when state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said she felt the exoneration commission isn’t needed.

“I strongly oppose creating yet another commission to second-guess, once again, what has been done,” said Huffman, a former judge. “I think that Texas has done a really good job to try to do what we can to compensate the exonerees for the injustice that has been done to them.”

Session, upset by Huffman’s point of view, has tirelessly fought for years to have his brother — who died of an asthma attack in prison in 1999 — exonerated.

“The attitude you have is deplorable,” he said to Huffman during last week’s committee meeting. “I am sickened.

“That’s your job to figure out what went wrong in this state,” he shouted at her. “It’s your job. You don’t like it? Go find another one.”

Huffman has said that Session’s reaction was unprofessional; the bill — HB 166 — has remained stalled in the committee since then.

Since last week’s argument, state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, has been killing Huffman bills that have shown up on the local and consent calendar in the House.

“If God gives me the strength to walk back here on every one of those bills that belongs to that senator, I will do what I have to do,” McClendon, author of the exoneration commission bill, has told the media.

One week left

Session said he’s optimistic he can get this bill back on track in the waning days of the session that wraps up Memorial Day.

This measure would create a nine-member Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission to determine the causes of wrongful convictions, promote adoption of needed reforms to improve the accuracy of criminal investigations and the reliability of criminal prosecutions and protect innocent people.

It has drawn bipartisan support and was mentioned during the State of the State address by Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, is trying to carry the bill through the Senate since it already passed the Senate. But he has said he doesn’t have the votes to get it out of committee right now.

Session said he hasn’t spoken to Huffman since last week’s committee haring.

“I’m sorry for the outburst,” he said. “She is a very smart attorney, but sometimes we can be so smart we can’t see the forest for the trees. I want her to see the forest.

“We haven’t done enough,” he said. “We will never do enough.”

Continuing work

Session and his family spent years trying to get Tim Cole a posthumous pardon.

Cole, who died in prison in 1999 while serving a 25-year sentence, was exonerated by a Travis County judge in 2009 after DNA testing cleared him of the 1985 rape of a Texas Tech student. Another man, Jerry Wayne Johnson, had sent a letter to Cole's mother confessing to the crime.

In 2010, Gov. Rick Perry formally presented the family with a posthumous pardon.

The next year, state lawmakers came close to establishing an innocence commission. They did approve bills to overhaul eyewitness practices by law enforcers, ensure DNA testing can prove a person’s innocence and create uniform standards for collection of biological evidence.

The family wants to do more to protect against wrongful convictions.

Today, Session and his mother will be in the Senate where Ruby Cole Session is expected to be recognized for her achievements.

“We will see what we can do about this this to a vote,” Session said. “My mom will try to talk to some people to try to get it moving again.”