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Ellis Urges Lawmakers to Act on Innocence Bills

Charles Chatman and other former prisoners who have been exonerated of their crimes are joining state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, in urging House lawmakers to act quickly and pass bills intended to reduce wrongful convictions.

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Charles Chatman spent 27 years in prison for rape after a woman misidentified him in a photo lineup. After DNA testing helped clear his name, a state court ordered his release in 2008. On Tuesday, he and other former prisoners who have been exonerated joined state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, in urging House lawmakers to act quickly to pass bills that could help put an end to wrongful convictions. House committees have until May 21 to take testimony on Senate bills. 

"The clock is ticking," said Ellis, who has filed two innocence bills this session, both of which passed the Senate in March but have not made it out of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. "There are less than three weeks left in this session, so further delay is justice denied."

Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, the chairman of the House Jurisprudence Committee, said he's not purposely holding up any legislation; he said some of his own bills haven't even made it out of the committee. He argued getting bills voted out in the 31-member Senate is much easier than in the 150-member House, particularly given how tense deliberations are in the lower chamber these days.

"Even being able to navigate them out of calendars" is a feat, Gallego said. "Relationships are fragile; tensions are high."

One of Ellis' bills would require police departments to adopt a written eyewitness identification procedure; the other would allow post-conviction DNA testing with the latest technology if DNA samples were not previously obtained from the prisoner.

The state of Texas has had more wrongful convictions — at least 44 have been identified — than any other state, and about 86 percent of them are due to misidentification, Ellis said. He filed a similar bill last session, but it stalled behind other legislation in the House. A similar House eyewitness ID bill was heard in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee late Tuesday.

"We need this bill to go through because it didn't start with us," Chatman said. "It's still happening."

Ellis and the exonerated former prisoners also pushed legislators to take action on two other bills — one to ensure exonerees' attorney fees are not excessive and one to allow exonerees to buy health insurance for the length of time they served in prison.

Cory Sessions, policy director for the Innocence Project of Texas, accused legislators of playing political games and demanded that they pass the innocence bills. Sessions is the 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. 

"The main purpose of ... every legislator coming here, walking through these doors daily, is really to ensure that we bridge the gap between the haves and the have nots, whether it’s health care, whether it’s wrongful conviction," he said. "So let's get it done."

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