TX Plans Summit on Wrongfully Convicted as Another Inmate Freed

James Lee Woodford was released from a Texas prison today after serving 27 years for a murder that DNA evidence now shows he didn't commit.

Woodward is the 18th Dallas County inmate, and the 31sth in Texas, to be exonerated by DNA testing.

Also today, State Senator Rodney Ellis announced that Texas will hold a summit on wrongful convictions on May 8 at the state capitol. [More...]

Received by e-mail from the Innocence Project (no link yet.)

As a result of the unprecedented number of exonerations in Texas, key leaders from across the state will gather in Austin on May 8 for a landmark Summit on Wrongful Convictions. Judges, lawmakers, defense attorneys, prosecutors, exonerees, professors and many others will come together for the Summit. The Summit will mark the first time any state’s criminal justice leaders have initiated a high-level meeting themselves to address wrongful convictions. Texas State Senator Rodney Ellis is spearheading the Summit, and Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck will attend. The Summit will be open to the public.

“We’ve reached a tipping point on wrongful convictions in Texas. Nobody can seriously doubt that there’s a problem, and next week leaders from across our criminal justice system will come together to start solving it,” Senator Ellis said today. “We will bring a wide range of leaders, experts and exonerees together for a full day to develop concrete, common-sense remedies to make our system of justice more fair and accurate. We won’t solve these serious problems in one day, but we will make historic strides toward restoring confidence in our criminal justice system.”

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  • Display: Sort:
    Is there already a clear pattern as to WHY ... (none / 0) (#1)
    by cymro on Tue Apr 29, 2008 at 01:38:06 PM EST
    ... these convictions occurred?

    The largest cause (none / 0) (#2)
    by Jeralyn on Tue Apr 29, 2008 at 01:45:25 PM EST
    is inaccurate eye witness testimony. There are several causes, and they are catalogued at the Innocence Project site.

    Thin Blue Line (none / 0) (#3)
    by nellre on Tue Apr 29, 2008 at 01:54:43 PM EST
    The documentary came out in 1988. It changed the way I thought about the justice system.
    This problem has been ignored for way too long for me to give them any credit for acting on it now.

    Thin Blue Line

    Not the 18th... (none / 0) (#4)
    by caramel on Tue Apr 29, 2008 at 02:03:57 PM EST
    but the 17th... still many more to come under Watkins' watch, if he doesn't get shot in the meantime.

    cause of convictions v. cause of exonerations (none / 0) (#5)
    by txpublicdefender on Tue Apr 29, 2008 at 02:19:29 PM EST
    Most, if not all, of the DNA exonerations in Dallas involved cases where the defendant was convicted almost solely on eyewitness testimony.  As someone who practiced in Dallas for several years, I can say that it was routine for people to be convicted of all sorts of serious crimes with little evidence beyond eyewitness testimony.  The jurors there simply do not demand more to convict.

    When you get to the issue of why there have been so many exonerations, though, a couple other issues must be factored in.  Obviously, you could not have exonerations if you didn't have the wrongful convictions in the first place.  But, Dallas also uses the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Science (which is commonly referred to as the Dallas County crime lab) for all its testing and SWiFS doesn't destroy any of their evidence.  That is why they still have evidence from a case like this, where, 27 years after his conviction, all this man's appeals have been exhausted and the courts have essentially told him he can't file any more appeals.  In many jurisdictions, any evidence from such a case would have long ago been destroyed.  But, SWiFS kept everything, and so it can be tested.  The second factor is that, ever since Craig Watkins got into office, he has reversed the previous policy in Dallas--and the same policy that seems to exist in just about every other jurisdiction--to oppose every request for post-conviction DNA testing.  Instead of opposing them, he is working with the state Innocence Project to help identify cases that should be looked at again.  That is why there have been so many exonerations in such a short period of time.

    My experience in Dallas pre-dated Watkins' election.  One of the attorneys in our office handled most all of the requests for post-conviction testing if the person didn't have their own retained counsel.  And the DA's office opposed those requests every time.  And many of the judges--including the appellate judges--read the law that provided for post-conviction testimony so narrowly, that people who should have gotten it as a matter of routine were denied.  I remember reading one opinion about a child rape case that baffled me.  The post-conviction testing law in Texas requires that identity have been an issue (as opposed to consent, for example) in the case in order to get testing.  This appellate court opinion upholding the trial judge's denial of the DNA testing request said that because the victim unequivocally positively identified the defendant as her assailant, identity was not an issue and he was not entitled to testing.  So, in their minds, identity wasn't an issue as long as it wasn't an issue for the victim.  

    At any rate, I am pleased that this man is being released, finally.  And I am hopeful that something positive will come out of this summit.  But, I can't help but think about all the other people in all these years in Dallas County who were convicted of robbery, or some other type of offense where there is no DNA to test, all on the basis of an eyewitness who was "sure."  Until juries stop buying a "positive" eyewitness as sufficient evidence to convict, innocent people will continue to be wrongfully convicted.

    txpd ... (none / 0) (#7)
    by syinco on Tue Apr 29, 2008 at 02:37:51 PM EST
    In your experience, has it now become a matter of course to bring to light, during trial, the general degree of unreliability of eyewitness testimony?  It seems that there is substantial literature and disturbing statistics that could be used to encourage a jury to appropriately weight such testimony.  Not being a lawyer, I'm not sure if there are trial rules that make that difficult or if it is now a commonplace tactic to do so.  



    No (none / 0) (#8)
    by txpublicdefender on Tue Apr 29, 2008 at 03:39:43 PM EST
    In most cases, judges still exclude that type of testimony.  Most commonly, judges rule that it doesn't meet the standard of being "helpful" to the jury because they say it is not something outside the jurors' common sense and experience.  This decision is routinely upheld on appeal.  Of course, it's ridiculous, but that's what judges use to keep it out.

    Thanks (none / 0) (#10)
    by syinco on Tue Apr 29, 2008 at 03:56:10 PM EST
    It is precisely because it is contrary to common sense and experience, not to mention what is often at stake, that we need to allow such testimony.  That we make mistakes is understandable.  That we don't try to learn from them is perplexing.

    I am curious to read appellate decisions that address the issue on that basis.

    Anyhow ... thanks for the reply.


    He's a good man. (none / 0) (#6)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue Apr 29, 2008 at 02:27:36 PM EST
    Thanks for the info.
    ever since Craig Watkins got into office, he has reversed the previous policy in Dallas--and the same policy that seems to exist in just about every other jurisdiction--to oppose every request for post-conviction DNA testing.  Instead of opposing them, he is working with the state Innocence Project to help identify cases that should be looked at again.

    not just faulty eye witness (none / 0) (#9)
    by cpinva on Tue Apr 29, 2008 at 03:50:31 PM EST
    identification. in the case of mr. woodford, and a number of others, the failure of the prosecution to turn over relevant, potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense has played a part as well. this would seem to also have been a standard policy of the former dallas DA.

    absent this information, the defense, regardless of its competence, is hamstrung from the start; the game is pretty much rigged.

    according to the article i read, there's no criminal penalty for this (not turning over evidence), but i should think it constitutes, at minimum, a clear violation of ethics.

    i'm not betting on action being taken to address that situation.

    Isn't that what the Duke boys (none / 0) (#11)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Tue Apr 29, 2008 at 05:14:11 PM EST
    are suing Nifong over? That Nifong purposely withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense?

    Texas is still a Republican state... (none / 0) (#12)
    by McKinless on Tue Apr 29, 2008 at 06:40:37 PM EST
    Senator Rodney Ellis is a great guy. Republican Governor Rick Perry is not. Will be curious to see what the "Texas summit" will look like--but I'm all for it.

    Craig Watkins IS a Democrat. If Dallas County had not gone Democratic last election (thanks to the large African-American population), Watkins would never have been elected and this wouldn't be happening. Thank God (and I do!) for his election to an office that was home to some notable Neanderthals.