IPTX Initiatives to Improve Accuracy and Integrity
in the Texas Criminal Justice System
In reviewing cases, we learn a lot about how the system works (or doesn't). We bring this knowledge into a broader statewide criminal justice conversation. Many of these discussions lead to the adoption of new best practices by the courts, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and law enforcement. This can take the form of statutory and/or policy reforms. We describe here some of the collaborative efforts in which we have participated and those efforts in which we continue to collaborate.
Texas Forensic Science Commission (current)
The Texas Legislature created the Texas Forensic Science Commission in 2005 to address concerns about the integrity and reliability of forensic science in Texas courts. The concerns emanated in part from problems at the Houston Police Department’s (“HPD”) crime lab in the early 2000’s. Serious deficiencies were found in many areas of forensic analysis at the HPD lab, including the handling, labeling, storing and examination of evidence. IPTX collaborates with the Innocence Project in New York City on forensic science issues related to wrongful convictions. These include microscopic hair analysis, bite mark analysis, DNA mixture analysis, arson, and serology.
The Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission (TCERC) exists under but independent from the Texas Judicial Council. It is also administratively attached to the Office of Court Administration (OCA). TCERC is a study commission charged with reviewing "cases in this state in which an innocent defendant was convicted and then, on or after January 1, 2010, was exonerated to identify the main causes of those convictions and make recommendations to prevent such tragedies from reoccurring in the future. The findings and recommendations are required to be submitted by December 1, 2016 and the TCERC is dissolved upon submission of the report. TCERC is made up of 11 members including four legislators, a gubernatorial appointee, representatives of various criminal justice government bodies and stakeholder organizations, and an appointment from the chair of the Texas Judicial Council. IPTX is an advisory member of the TCERC and actively participates in its work.
Statewide Review of Arson Cases (2011-2013)
IPTX collaborated with the State Fire Marshall's Office and the Forensic Science Commission to conduct a statewide review of arson cases. The objective was to identify any convictions that were based solely or primarily on flawed science. IPTX contacted 1,085 defendants in arson cases who were still incarcerated or who had been recently released. From an initial round of responses, IPTX attorneys, with the help of university students, screened the number of cases needing a closer look down to 33 and then was narrowed further. A select number of cases have re-entered the legal process seeking exonerations. We will update this section with more details shortly.
The Texas Legislature established the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions during the 81st Legislative Session of 2009. The Advisory Panel was named after IPTX client Timothy Cole, the first Texan to be posthumously exonerated of a crime through DNA testing.
The Advisory Panel was directed to advise the the Task Force on Indigent Defense in the preparation of a study regarding the causes of wrongful convictions and make recommendations to prevent future wrongful convictions. The Advisory Panel met formally on four occasions and also held a number of subcommittee meetings throughout the year. In August, the Advisory Panel submitted its report and research to the Commission (Task Force) for publication and distribution.
The Advisory Panel specifically addressed eyewitness identification procedures, the recording of custodial interrogations, open discovery policies, post-conviction procedures, and the feasibility of creating an innocence commission to investigate wrongful convictions. In total, the Advisory Panel made 11 specific recommendations for reform. Pursuant to HB 498 a report and recommendations were presented to the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Speaker of the House, and standing committees with members on the Advisory Panel.