Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Republican Lawmaker Bucks Party's 'Tough on Crime' Stance by Backing Bill to Curb Wrongful Convictions

Texas House member, Republican Will Hartnett, plans to help push a proposal to reform eyewitness identification procedures used in criminal investigations that too often send innocent men to prison for crimes they did not commit.  The bill would require police departments "to have a policy on lineups (most don't) and lets defense counsel tell juries if the rules weren't followed."  See here.

Efforts at reform in Texas to attack the problem of wrongful convictions are pushed by the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions, passed in 2009 to study the prevention of wrongful convictions across the state.  The Act is named after the first man posthumously pardoned by the Governor of Texas for a rape he did not commit.

The details of Mr. Cole's conviction are appalling. This is a shortened version of the summary found at the Innocence Project's Web site: In 1985, a young woman reported she'd been raped and described the perpetrator to police as a young African-American man wearing a yellow shirt and sandals, but didn’t give many other details. She said the perpetrator had smoked cigarettes throughout the attack. 

Timothy Cole was a 26-year-old Army veteran studying business at Texas Tech in 1985. On the night of the incident, Mr. Cole had studied at home, where his brother was hosting a card game. Two weeks later, Mr. Cole went to a pizza restaurant near the Texas Tech campus, a few blocks from the scene of the attack where he spoke with a female detective outside of the restaurant. That conversation made him a suspect. A detective went to Mr. Cole’s house to take a Polaroid photo of him.  Detectives then showed the accuser a photo lineup including six photographs. Mr. Cole’s was the only color photo and the only Polaroid; the other five were black-and-white photos. Mr. Cole was looking at the camera in his photo while the subjects in the five mug shots were facing to the side. According to police, the accuser was immediately sure that Cole was her attacker, saying: “That’s him.” 

The next day, police conducted an in-person lineup with Cole and four prisoners. The accuser again identified him. Victims from similar recent rapes also viewed the lineup and did not identify him as the attacker. At the trial, Mr. Cole's brother and friends testified that Mr. Cole had been at the apartment at the time of the attack. Mr. Cole also presented evidence that he had severe asthma and did not smoke cigarettes.  Mr. Cole was convicted.

In 1995, a Texas prisoner named Jerry Wayne Johnson wrote to police and prosecutors in Lubbock County that he had committed the rape for which Cole had been convicted. Johnson’s letters were not acknowledged. Mr. Cole died in prison of an asthma-induced heart attack in 1999. He was just 38.  He died without ever learning that another man was attempting to confess to the crime.

We applaud GOP legislator Will Hartnett for pushing for reform as a Republican. He recently spoke about the difficulties in pushing such legislation as a Republican:

"Republican candidates often campaign on being tough on crime. Anything that could be perceived as softening law enforcement with regard to criminals can be subject to scrutiny in Republican circles. But my job in Austin is to do the best thing for justice, not necessarily what is politically best. . . . .

"I'm trying to think of the old saying ... 'The conviction of an innocent person is a crime unto itself.' It's an indictment of our justice system. Our country was founded on protection of liberty and individual rights. The justice system needs to bend over backward to protect innocent people. The fact that we've seen so many people imprisoned for long periods of time, when they were innocent, indicates we've got a problem that needs to be fixed . . . .

"We have a very solid Republican majority in the House, and Republicans tend to be very cautious in changing law-enforcement procedures, and so having my involvement attached to that bill will give them a lot of comfort that it is, in fact, good legislation that needs to be passed."