Senator Says Innocence Commission Bill is in Trouble

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, speaks against the motion to adopt the Senate version of the state budget on May 4, 2011.
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, speaks against the motion to adopt the Senate version of the state budget on May 4, 2011.

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout with comments from Cory Session and the Innocence Project of Texas.

Legislation that would create a commission to review wrongful convictions in Texas is in peril after an advocate for the bill — the brother of an exoneree who died while wrongfully imprisoned — lambasted a state senator who opposes it during a committee hearing this week.

"I don't have my votes in committee," state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said Thursday. He is the Senate sponsor of House Bill 166, which would establish an innocence commission in Texas. "I had them, but I don't have them now."

During a Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing on Tuesday, Cory Session, the brother of Tim Cole, who was posthumously exonerated of rape charges, shouted at state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, after she voiced opposition to HB 166.

Under the bill, which is pending in committee, the commission's governor-appointed members would investigate wrongful convictions, identify why they occur and examine appeals filed with the state’s courts for evidence of ethical violations by attorneys and judges.

Session, who works with the Innocence Project of Texas, accused Huffman, a former prosecutor and criminal court judge, of standing in the way of reforms to prevent wrongful convictions. "The attitude you have is deplorable," he said to Huffman during the hearing. "I am sickened. ... I am pissed off."

After shouting at Huffman that she should "get another job," Session stormed out of the room, muttering “bitch” before slamming a door behind him.

Huffman said Thursday that Session's outburst was unprofessional and disrespectful, but she said she hadn't urged the other six members of the committee to vote against the bill in her defense. 

"I thought it was just inappropriate behavior from a person in that position," Huffman said, adding that the incident hadn't changed her opinion that the bill is unnecessary. Huffman has said that legislators have already accomplished much of what is needed to review wrongful convictions through other legislation that has already passed.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, said he had always been a "no" on the bill, but he declined to say why. He said that Huffman didn't recruit him to vote against the measure.

Ellis said he would continue working to get support for the bill. 

In an interview Thursday, Session said he had no plans to apologize for his comments to Huffman. He described her as a "queen bee" in the Senate, who other Republican legislators look to when deciding how to vote on criminal justice issues.

"Criminal justice legislation should not be run through Joan Huffman to see if she wants to put her stinger in it to kill it or not," Session said.

While he regretted that his muttering of an expletive was reported, Session said he stood by what he said during the committee hearing. 

"I'm looking for 21 members of the Senate who have backbones. Apparently they can't stand up, in my opinion, because they don’t have a backbone when it comes to criminal justice," he said.

He also said that the measure did not have enough support to pass out of committee before he testified on Tuesday, so his comments didn't affect the bill's status.

Jeff Blackburn, general counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, said that Session's anger over some legislators' refusal to examine errors in the justice system was justified and that it didn't setback the bill, which has failed in past legislative sessions.

"It's pretty clear that Cory was out of line in the way he said what he said," Blackburn said. "On other hand, sometimes I think we need to go a little out of line and understand that not every issue is some dry, cerebral discussion. Some of them involve people's lives. This guy lost his brother."

 

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