Innocence Commission Clash Impacting Other Bills

Sen. Joan Huffman on the floor of the Texas Senate.
Sen. Joan Huffman on the floor of the Texas Senate.

A battle over legislation that would create an innocence commission to review wrongful conviction has turned personal — and potentially deadly for a handful of bills authored by state Sen. Joan Huffman.

State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, is keeping a promise she made Friday to kill all the bills on the local and consent calendar authored by Huffman, a Houston Republican and former prosecutor and judge. The promise, which has so far affected four bills with Huffman's name on them, comes in retaliation for Huffman's opposition to House Bill 166, which would establish the innocence commission.

"If God gives me the strength to walk back here on every one of those bills that belongs to that senator, I will do what I have to do," McClendon said Friday.

McClendon blocked Huffman's bills on the local and consent calendar by talking in opposition to them for 10 minutes, all that is required to derail those measures.

"I respect that she’s doing what she feels is necessary from her perspective," Huffman said Monday, adding, "I personally don’t think it’s fair to the people, but this is her decision to make."

Among the bills that McClendon's targeted Monday were Senate Bill 263 and Senate Bill 264, authored by Huffman and sponsored by state Rep. Stefani Carter, R-Dallas.

During a frustrated exchange between Carter and McClendon, the Dallas legislator suggested that McClendon and Huffman should sort out their differences in a more constructive way.

"I think what’s happening between you and the senator is personal,” Carter said, adding, "It doesn’t help for the key witness in the innocence commission bill to call the senator a female dog. That doesn’t help the dialogue."

Debate over the innocence commission bill took an angry turn last week when Cory Session, the brother of exoneree Tim Cole, who died of an asthma attack while in prison for a rape he didn't commit, yelled at Huffman during a committee hearing. 

Session, who works with the Innocence Project of Texas, accused Huffman 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. And since the outburst, HB 166 has remained stalled in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, lacking the support to move to the full Senate for a vote.

Carter said that Session should apologize for his words. Session has said he has no such plans. While he regretted that his muttering of an expletive was reported, Session said Thursday that he stood by what he said during the committee hearing. 

Huffman opposes the innocence commission bill because, she has said, lawmakers have already implemented reforms needed in the wake of Texas' multiple exonerations and it would be unnecessary.

McClendon and advocates for the commission argue that more reforms are needed to prevent wrongful convictions and that the commission is needed to help exonerees understand what led to their wrongful imprisonment.

During her exchange with Carter, McClendon explained why Session's temper flared during the committee hearing.

"She was talking in a very, very derogative way of the Timothy Cole innocence review commission," McClendon said. "The citizens of this state did not even have a chance to present their cause before the committee, because the committee was already damaged before the bill could be called up."

State Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, sponsored another of Huffman's bills that McClendon derailed on Friday. House Bill 141 would increase licensure requirements for practicing orthotics and prosthetics

"I was very frustrated," Davis said. "It was a noncontroversial bill — there was no opposition. It was very important to the Baylor College of Medicine."

She said the bill would be moved to the general House calendar for a vote on Tuesday.

But Carter said there may not be time to save the two measures that she sponsored.

"She has taken it upon herself to attack the senator through legislation," Carter said. "And I think that we should have a political discourse above that."

Reporters Becca Aaronson, Chris Hooks and Reeve Hamilton contributed to this report.

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