Exonerated Men Plead for Justice System Change

After listening to nearly two hours of emotional testimony from exonerated prisoners, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee today approved a bill meant to reform the way law enforcement officials in Texas gather and use eyewitness identification evidence.

A half-dozen men who spent decades behind bars, convicted of crimes they did not commit, pleaded with lawmakers today to improve the reliability of eyewitness identifications used in court. All of them were sent to prison based largely on the testimony of witnesses who incorrectly fingered them in photographs and lineups.

Experts testified today that in Texas, there have been 41 exonerations in Texas in the last decade. The vast majority of those wrongful convictions were based on erroneous eyewitness testimony.

"I was a fan of Perry Mason as a kid," said Cornelius Dupree, who spent 30 years in prison for rape and was cleared in January by DNA evidence. "When you get caught up in the system, you kinda find out it's a little different."

Under House Bill 215, by state Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, police departments would have to adopt uniform, academically backed standards for gathering eyewitness testimony. If a department does not adopt an eyewitness identification policy, the jury would be informed that any testimony was gathered in a way that doesn't conform with best practices.

The measure, derived from recommendations made by the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions, was described as a compromise bill — not everything prosecutors wanted and not everything defense lawyers wanted — and no one testified against its passage. But some criminal justice reform advocates said the measure didn't go far enough. They had hoped for stronger sanctions against departments that don't adopt stronger eyewitness identification policies and even barring the use of testimony gathered outside of the procedures. "Is it going to be perfect? I don’t think any of us believe that," Gallego said. "But it's going to be a whole lot better."

The bill now moves to the full House for consideration.

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