One month ago, hundreds of law-enforcement officials from around the state gathered under the dome in Texas’s Senate chamber at the behest of Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston. They came to pay their respects to nine men who had been convicted of various crimes in Texas courts. Their sentences combined, these men spent a total of 161 years in jail; 58,765 days served; and every one of them unwarranted. All nine had been wrongly convicted, which was why they were there: to convince the gathered smokies that Texas’ criminal justice system needed to be reformed.
“It was pretty apparent that something had to be done,” Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins tells Unfair Park. “At the end you left saying, ‘That was a nice dog-and-pony show, but what’s going to happen?’ Fortunately, those people in position to make a difference looked into it and did. We got in the same room with people that had the power to put something like this together.”
One of the people with “the power” was Texas Court of Appeals Judge Barbara Hervey, who yesterday announced the formation of the Texas Criminal Justice Integrity Unit.
You know the failures of the Texas criminal system. The story has more foot traffic than an Ikea showroom. Thirty-three people convicted in Texas have been exonerated; and more than half of those, 17, have come out of Dallas County. In the time that Watkins has been in office, six people have been found innocent of their convicted crimes.
Hervey’s Integrity Unit will consist of 12 lawmakers from around the state, meeting periodically “to address the growing concerns with our criminal justice system,” according to a press release. Ellis, Hervey and Watkins are all part of the so-called “Decent Dozen.”
Bill Allison, a law professor at the University of Texas and also a member of the unit, told Unfair Park that it’s the Integrity Unit’s job to “get something done in the state of Texas. We’re behind in legislation reform. We’re making the same mistake over and over.”
Watkins initiated an Integrity Unit in Dallas County last year after the Texas Supreme Court threatened to intervene, should another Dallas conviction be overturned. It was the first Integrity Unit formed in the state.
“Politically, yeah, I can say, ‘Wow, in just a year we’ve done great things,” Watkins says. “I think the larger picture is not for me to take credit for all this. It’s something that I’ve advocated for. Obviously, it was something that needed to be done.”
Criminal system reforms have long been a topic of discussion among Texas’ law-enforcement and law-making communities. Proposals include requiring officers to tape confessions, improving defense council for the poor and prosecutorial misconduct. For those who answer these ruminations with pleas for action – perhaps forwarding that age-old adage of “Shut up and dance” -- Hervey’s unit hopes to say, OK.
“[Ellis’ hearing] was another step in getting us to realize let’s stop talking and do something,” Hervey tells Unfair Park.
However, just what Hervey’s unit will be and do, specifically, is unclear at the moment. Watkins contends that the unit will be an innocence commission, although funding for the group will be drafted out of the Appeals Courts’ coffers and not the state’s.
“It’s going to address the issues of our system and what we need to do to implement progress and improvements,” Watkins said. “We’ll also address claims of innocence.”
Hervey, on the other hand, contends that the unit will not function as an innocence commission.
“Commissions are study groups,” she said. “This is beyond a study group.”
Allison also contends that the Integrity Unit is not an innocence commission. It’s the legislature’s job, Allison tells Unfair Park, to create such an entity: “Depending on how it’s structured, it could be powerful or totally emasculated.
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“An innocence commission is a group of people who can actually do something in terms of making something happen. We can’t. We rely on others.”
The unit has outlined certain reforms it intends to target (such as “improve eyewitness identification” and “improving crime lab reliability”), but just which topics will be at the forefront of its agenda remain in question.
“There hasn’t been any meeting,” Allison says. “It’s too early to tell. You can’t get anything done if you don’t have a consensus. Priorities must be set … to get legislation to the governor.”
Even without a group consensus or gathering, Hervey has put into motion certain reforms. The unit is in the process of developing writ training, and Ellis plans to go before the legislature in hopes of finding funds for investigations into convicts’ innocent claims. --Spencer Campbell