Texas Exonerations in 2016 - Update

Ten of the eleven exonerations in Texas so far this year are drug possession cases in Harris County. These are cases where defendants pled guilty before the alleged "drugs" were tested. Testing later proved that the substances in their possession at the time of their arrest were not drugs.

So why did these people plead guilty? One possibility is that they thought they were drugs. In this scenario, a drug dealer likely sold them bogus product.

Another possibility is that the defendants thought it was the quickest way to resolve the case. Plead guilty, do a little time, get on with your life.

Either way, it's still bad justice.

The Harris County district attorney's office is, as we understand it, no longer moving to convict in similar cases before making sure that the drugs are real. This is what we call common sense. :)

Falsely convicted Bedford grandfather now a free man

Paul Moseley | pmoseley@star-telegram.com

Paul Moseley | pmoseley@star-telegram.com

John Nolly, 42, was released from prison on Tuesday, May 17 after spending 19 years incarcerated for a murder he did not commit.

His release came as the result of work by the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, the Innocence Project (our sister innocence project in New York City) and Fort Worth attorney Reagan Wynn.

Read the full story at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The Fort Worth district attorney's office was very careful NOT to call Nolly's release an "exoneration." Technically, the DA could try Nolly again for the crime. However, given the flaws in the case, that will be very unlikely.

In a future hearing, Innocence Project attorneys will try to get the court to acknowledge Nolly's "actual innocence." Such a finding will allow Nolly to pursue compensation by the State of Texas for his wrongful conviction.

The False Promise of DNA Testing

This excellent article (long read, but very informative) just out from The Atlantic magazine.

In a nutshell, the article claims that DNA testing, while making notable advances in quality assurance, is still fraught with uneven testing procedures and analysis.

So much so that we should probably be skeptical of certain convictions based on DNA evidence.

So here we are in a movement that has trumpeted DNA testing as the gold standard for proving innocence now having to also assess whether a conviction based mainly on DNA evidence might be wrong.

So in one scenario to prove innocence, we tend to say DNA testing is beyond dispute. In this new scenario, however, we may have to argue that DNA testing is fatally flawed.

The Odd Case of Jesus Vela

This past January, Midland, Texas resident Jesus Vela was exonerated on a false gun possession conviction. Vela had pled guilty to the charge in January 2015 and was sentenced to three years in prison.

As was customary in these cases, the gun involved was due to be destroyed, taking a dangerous weapon off the streets. A Midland police officer was about to do just that.

Except that the officer discovered that the item in question was not a gun gun, but a pellet gun. And there ain't no law in Texas against packing a pellet gun. The conscientious police officer (Kent Spencer) informed the district attorney and he got the whole thing cleared up.

Are you scratching your head like I am?

How could a guy get charged (let alone convicted) for illegal gun possession without first confirming that it was a gun? And why did Jesus plead guilty? Did he assume it must have been against the law to be carrying a pellet gun? And finally, where was Jesus' attorney in all this?

Some exonerations don't come with a boatload of drama. Some exonerations, like this one, just seem to offer an everyday unsettling tale about how mistakes happen in the criminal justice process.

Special Screening of Southwest of Salem

San Antonio Four family, friends and supporters prior to special screening of Southwest of Salem documentary at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio.

San Antonio Four family, friends and supporters prior to special screening of Southwest of Salem documentary at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio.

Family, friends and supporters of the San Antonio Four gathered last night at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio to view a special screening of Southwest of Salem (SoS), the riveting documentary about their wrongful conviction for aggravated sexual abuse.

The film was shown at the exact same time as it was also being screened at Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival, which offers a selection of over 200 films from Canada and around the world to Toronto audiences of more than 200,000.

Following the San Antonio screening, the San Antonio Four (Elizabeth Ramirez Cassandra Rivera Kristie Mayhugh Anna Vasquez) were linked via Skype to the Toronto audience of over 1,000 for a Q&A. SoS director Deborah S. Esquenazi and IPTX attorney Mike Ware were present in Toronto.

What is an Exoneration? Who is an Exoneree?

There is often confusion about the terms "exoneration" and "exoneree." The standard by which we use these terms is defined by the National Registry of Exonerations. Here's what they say:

In a nutshell, an exoneration occurs when a person who has been convicted of a crime is officially cleared based on new evidence of innocence. Here is a more detailed explanation.

Exoneration—A person has been exonerated if he or she was convicted of a crime and later was either: (1) declared to be factually innocent by a government official or agency with the authority to make that declaration; or (2) relieved of all the consequences of the criminal conviction by a government official or body with the authority to take that action. The official action may be: (i) a complete pardon by a governor or other competent authority, whether or not the pardon is designated as based on innocence; (ii) an acquittal of all charges factually related to the crime for which the person was originally convicted; or (iii) a dismissal of all charges related to the crime for which the person was originally convicted, by a court or by a prosecutor with the authority to enter that dismissal. The pardon, acquittal, or dismissal must have been the result, at least in part, of evidence of innocence that either (i) was not presented at the trial at which the person was convicted; or (ii) if the person pled guilty, was not known to the defendant, the defense attorney and the court at the time the plea was entered. The evidence of innocence need not be an explicit basis for the official action that exonerated the person.

Exoneree—A person who was convicted of a crime and later officially declared innocent of that crime, or relieved of all legal consequences of the conviction because evidence of innocence that was not presented at trial required reconsideration of the case.

New and Improved Website for IPTX

As you can see, we've overhauled the website. We hope you enjoy the new look and some of the other improvements we've maid.

We're not done yet, however. The website is our "window to the world." We'll be making additional investments over time to make the site as useful and enjoyable as possible for our extended family of staff, donors, volunteers, supporters and others who take an interest in our work.

PBS Interview IPTX's Gary Udashen

Should people convicted on unsound science be given new trials?

Texas leads the U.S. in both incarceration rate and number of exonerations of people wrongfully convicted. But it's also the first state to implement a Junk Science Law, which provides defendants whose trials were prosecuted with flawed scientific evidence direct access to a retrial.

See this PBS News Hour interview with IPTX board president Gary Udashen, former IPTX Chief Counsel Jeff Blackburn, and IPTX client Sonia Casy.

Wrongful Conviction News

Here are some recent Texas stories related to wrongful convictions and criminal justice.

Recognition: How a Travesty Led to Criminal Justice Innovation in Texas
New Yorker | January 16, 2016

The Texas Justice League
Dallas Morning News | December 26, 2015
Editorial: John Whitmire, Rodney Ellis and Ruth Jones McClendon led the charge for far-reaching criminal justice reforms.