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Hearing on Innocence Commission Bill Draws Heated Testimony

A Senate committee hearing turned explosive on Tuesday when the brother of a wrongfully convicted man who died in prison railed against a senator who opposes the creation of an innocence commission.

Sen. Joan Huffman joins moderator James Henson in a discussion of law and order issues in the upcoming 83rd legislative session during the Texas Tribune Festival, 2012.

The brother of an exoneree who died while wrongly imprisoned shouted at a senator and former prosecutor on Tuesday during a committee hearing that turned explosive, saying her attitude was deplorable and she should get a new job before storming out while muttering an expletive.

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 a proposal to create a commission that would investigate wrongful convictions in Texas.

Several men who spent time in prison for crimes they did not commit were among those who testified during the Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing about House Bill 166, by state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, which would create an "innocence commission."

Under the bill, members appointed by the governor 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, criticized Huffman, a former prosecutor and criminal court judge, over her opposition to the bill. He accused her of standing in the way of reforms to prevent wrongful convictions.

"The eyes of Texas have been closed on criminal justice reform," said Session. Session also said that Texas Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson and other judges have supported the proposed commission. "The attitude you have is deplorable," he said to Huffman. "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 did not respond, and instead calmly continued with the hearing as several other exonerees urged her to support the measure.

Charles Chatman, who was freed in 2008 after 27 years in prison on a wrongful conviction for aggravated rape, testified that he still does not know why he was wrongfully convicted. He said he believes people are still being wrongfully convicted.

But Lee Hon, the Polk County district attorney and a board member of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said the bill is not needed because of the progress the state has made and is continuing to make to improve the criminal justice system. Hon told the committee that legislators have already approved many recommendations by the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions.

"It's not as if the state has remained stagnant," he said. 

He noted that on Wednesday, the House is scheduled to vote on SB 344, by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, which would explicitly allow judges to order new trials in cases in which the science that led to the original conviction has changed.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who is sponsoring HB 166, said the legislation attempts to address "concerns that my friends in the prosecutor community raised."

This bill would only review "proven wrongful convictions" and would not "relitigate" any cases, he said. It would also not allow the commission to subpoena witnesses. "I tried to take out everything I thought you all would complain about," Ellis said, referring to prosecutors.

Huffman argued the commission is unnecessary.

"Texas has done a really good job to do what we can to compensate exonerees," said Huffman. She listed more than a dozen bills passed in the last decade to help indigent defendants and prevent wrongful convictions.

"Anyone listening to this could not argue we haven't made significant reforms in criminal justice," she said. "We do not need yet another layer to go through this again."

"I'm not going to give up on you," Ellis said, noting that he had worked with Huffman to pass the Michael Morton Act, which would increase requirements for prosecutors to share material with the defense before a trial.

"There's nothing you can do" to get my support for the bill, Huffman said.

Whitmire, who leads the committee, urged prosecutors and supporters of the bill to meet and compromise.

"I can't see why you all can't sit down," he said. "I think there is momentum towards passing some sort of review process."

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