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TribBlog: Defending the Innocent

The Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense today approved money to help establish a public defender's office in Harris County — the largest urban area in the nation without one — along with a slate of measures meant to prevent innocent people from serving time.

Timothy Cole

The state Task Force on Indigent Defense today approved nearly a dozen recommendations for new laws meant to prevent wrongful convictions in Texas.

The recommendations come from the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions, a committee lawmakers established in 2009 to study how and why innocent Texans wind up in prison. The panel's namesake died of an asthma attack while serving time for a rape he did not commit. In Texas, 43 people have been exonerated by DNA evidence, more people than in any other state.

The panel's recommendations include adopting a more scientific procedure for using eyewitness identification, requiring electronic recordings of inmate interrogations, allowing post-conviction DNA testing in all cases where such evidence is available and increasing funding for innocence projects. (Read the the full recommendations by clicking on the file to the right.)

Cole's mother and brother today lauded the recommendations and urged lawmakers to quickly pass bills that will prevent more tragedies like the one their family has endured.

"Now's the time for the Legislature to take this baton ... and move forward with expediency," said Cole's brother, Cory Session. 

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said he hopes the governor next year — whether it's Republican Gov. Rick Perry or his Democratic challenger Bill White — will make the wrongful conviction legislation an urgent issue so that the measures don't get drowned in the expected wrangling over the state's $18 billion budget hole and redistricting.

Today, the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense also approved a $4.1 million grant to help Harris County establish a public defender office to represent poor people accused of crimes.

With that decision, Harris County will lose its status as the largest urban area in the nation without a public defender.

All but two of the county's 22 criminal district courts will use the public defender's office, which will be overseen by a 15-member board. The public defender will also deal with appeals of misdemeanor charges and serve up to 1,400 mentally ill or mentally retarded defendants. 

If it's implemented and operated correctly, Ellis said, the new public defender's office will help prevent wrongful convictions, reduce the county's overflowing jail population and cut down on the number of offenders who wind up back in the local lockup. "That was a big step for Harris County," Ellis said.

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Courts Criminal justice State government Rodney Ellis State agencies Texas Department Of Criminal Justice