State Innocence Clinics Dodge Budget Bullet, for Now

Texas innocence clinics escaped unscathed from the first round of budget cut recommendations, but advocates say they aren't safe yet. They gathered at the Capitol today to urge lawmakers to maintain funding for law school innocence clinics across the state.

Texas universities are home to four innocence clinics at the University of Texas, Texas Tech University, the University of Houston and Texas Southern University. Each receives $200,000 per biennium from the state and more than 1,000 new requests for representation each year. The clinics use the money primarily litigation and investigation costs, including DNA testing and travel expenses. Advocates were worried the Legislative Budget Board would recommend completely eliminating funds for the clinics.

"If cut, the clinics themselves would close," said policy consultant Scott Henson. "The Innocence Project of Texas is a separate nonprofit and could keep going based on donations, but the [law school] clinics handle much of the casework. It would be a tremendous blow."

Claude Simmons Jr. and Christopher Scott were wrongfully convicted on capital murder charges in 1997. They spent more than 12 years in prison, and Simmons said he missed his father's funeral because of the conviction. The two were exonerated in 2009 based on faulty eyewitness identification. The Texas Innocence Network at the UH Law Center took the case, but it was forced to abandon it because it didn't have funding to go to the Dallas prison, where Simmons was held. The UT law clinic took up the case in 2005, and he was released nearly four years later. It was the first post-conviction, non-DNA case in the United States.

Cory Session, policy director for the Innocence Project of Texas, said it is imperative to maintain funding for the clinics.

"All of the men and women who still languish in prison, this is their last hope," said Session, brother of Timothy Cole, who was posthumously exonerated for a rape he was convicted of in 1986. Cole died of an asthma attack in 1999 while serving his sentence. "When their appeals have been exhausted by the Court of Criminal Appeals, when all of their writs have been denied, this is their last ditch hope."

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