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Rodney Ellis leaves Texas Senate with criminal justice legacy

The 2017 legislative session will open without former state Sen. Rodney Ellis, a 26-year lawmaker who became a criminal justice reform titan in the upper chamber.

Retiring Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, listens to testimony during the Senate Committee on State Affairs hearing on religious freedom on Feb. 17, 2016.

HOUSTON — Sixteen years ago, when then-state Sen. Rodney Ellis heard about a man who was accused of raping a University of Houston student and was later cleared of the crime through DNA testing, the lawmaker wanted a meeting.

Anthony Robinson was 26 years old in 1987 when University of Houston police pulled him from a car because he matched the description the victim gave police of a man who assaulted her. He was convicted and sentenced to 27 years in prison, spent 10 of them behind bars and, once on parole, paid for DNA testing that confirmed what he always knew.

"He was my poster child. Perfect. Honorably discharged from the military. No priors. He got a master's degree in sociology while he was in prison," said Ellis, a Houston Democrat. "I said, 'I want to try to get a bill passed to increase the compensation for people like you.'"

Working with Robinson to frame the issue of DNA testing was representative of Ellis' approach in advancing criminal justice reform measures throughout his 26-year career in the Texas Senate. The Texas Legislature convenes Tuesday without Ellis, one of the state's most influential figures on criminal justice issues. Ellis has left the Senate to serve as a Harris County commissioner, and State Rep. Borris Miles is his successor.

Before joining the Senate in 1990, Ellis was a three-term Houston City Council member and chief of staff to late U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland, D-Houston. Ellis, now a father of four and a cycling enthusiast, earned a law degree from the University of Texas School of Law and has worked as an investment banker.

In 2001, Ellis' legislation began increasing compensation for people wrongfully convicted, from $25,000 total — "practically nothing," he said — to $25,000 for each year in prison. In 2005, he passed a bill that increased compensation to $50,000 for each year and free tuition for four years of college. In 2009, he passed a bill that mandated a lump sum of $80,000 for each year of incarceration and annuity payments based on that same amount. In 2011, he passed legislation that provided health care to exonerees.

"The art of lawmaking in a lot of ways is storytelling," Ellis said. "You got to have somebody who puts a face on the problem. That's the storytelling part."

Ellis, from when he first entered the Senate, knew the value of a news conference, an editorial and having the right person tell the right story at the right time. Every bill was different, but it was always important to get the news media's help in setting the tone on issues, he said. Also, Ellis said, it was crucial to find allies from another district to advance legislation. Former state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, became a reliable partner on some of Ellis' most high-profile criminal justice legislation.

One such bill was the Michael Morton Act of 2013. The law mandates that prosecutors disclose documents and information that could call into question a defendant's guilt or affect a sentence.

"Senator Ellis had a great ability to challenge your conscience on issues," said Duncan, now chancellor of the Texas Tech University System. Whether it was Michael Morton, who wrongfully was convicted of murdering his wife, or Timothy Cole, who died in prison while serving a 25-year sentence for a rape he did not commit, stories like theirs were "more than an anecdote," Duncan said. The faces Ellis brought forth became symbols for their respective issues, he said.

Christine Morton was beaten to death in the Williamson County home she shared with her husband, Michael, and their 3-year-old son, Eric, on Aug. 13, 1986. Michael Morton should never have been a key suspect, but a flawed prosecution — which ignored witness accounts and withheld evidence — led to his conviction. He spent 25 years in prison.

Morton recalled being in awe of the attention his case garnered from lawmakers. Ellis, he said, "had a great ability to put people at ease," and Morton was "ready and willing" to help advance discovery reform.

"Senator Ellis has been instrumental in trying to right wrongs," Morton said.

Duncan's work with Ellis helped make the difference for the Michael Morton Act, said Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service.

"It was very powerful for Senator Ellis and Senator Duncan to sit down with the prosecutors and say, 'Look, this system isn't working if somebody like Michael Morton sits in prison for 25 years absolutely innocent,'" she said. "I think that was very savvy to partner with Senator Duncan on the bill."

State Sen. Robert Duncan, left, R-Lubbock, listens to State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, during the afternoon session June 27, 2011.Bob Daemmrich

Initially, Ellis pushed for "reciprocal discovery," which would have required defense attorneys and prosecutors to share files. The Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association opposed it, arguing that it would be intrusive and that only prosecutors should have to open their files because the burden of proof in criminal cases is on the state.

"That was a little too far out there for even my allies, the defense bar," he said. "So they were mad. I mean, they came up to me, they put letters out. They were against the bill, so we kept working at it. Then I came up with the language we do have."

Ellis also enlisted the help of then-Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, asking him to weigh in with a group of prosecutors and defense attorneys.

"I said, 'Can you go by there in that meeting and just tell them how important this is to you?'" Ellis recalled, chuckling. "So he went up there, opened the door, of course, they all get up, here's the chief justice in the room, and he said, 'I'm looking for Senator Ellis. He wanted to talk to me about that discovery bill, and it's just so important. I was told he was up here.' We were pushing. We worked that one pretty hard."

A major component of Ellis' success was building consensus on legislation.

"You have to be careful that you don't just compromise a bill down to it being meaningless, although I've done that before, sometimes to make the statement then come back and try and prove it," he said. "Just get something on the books and come back."

He found himself in that spot when both chambers passed the Fair Defense Act in 1999. Ellis wanted legislation that established standards and funds for indigent defense.

"I thought the bill was meaningless," he said. "I watered it down to get it passed."

Then-Gov. George W. Bush vetoed the bill, giving Ellis another shot. He was successful the next session, passing legislation that funded indigent defense, allowing more people without means to have paid legal representation. The law also mandates that courts have a formal process for providing these lawyers.

"So when he vetoed the bill, it came up on the presidential campaign trail, and they talked about it in the debates, and the spotlight that went on the Texas criminal justice system when Governor Bush was running for president was far more than anything that I could have generated," Ellis said. 

In 2005 and 2007, lawmakers increased funding for indigent defense, and in 2009, Ellis passed legislation that created the Office of Capital and Forensic Writs, which defends indigent people in death penalty appeals.

Michael Morton, at the Williamson County Courthouse on April 19, 2013, stands with state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Ellis' chief of staff, Brandon Dudley.Bob Daemmrich

Ellis met future state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, when he was a student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and a Leland intern. He was "born old," Coleman said recently about Ellis.

People like Ellis "wear suits before people their age wear suits," Coleman said. "He carried himself in a way people would have confidence in his abilities."

Coleman, who has bipolar disorder, recalled Ellis reaching out to him.

"I was 19," he said. "It was going on then. He approached me as my boss and asked what could he do. You don't forget things like that."

Coleman marveled at how Ellis worked with his colleagues, mastered the legislative process and passed major legislation such as when he added an amendment to welfare reform legislation in 1995 that created the Texas Workforce Commission.

"Rodney thrives off this," Coleman said. "It's who he is. He's a policymaker. He's a politician. He's a business person. But he's known outside of Texas. He's probably the most well-known state senator out of any state by people in other states."

Ellis' career has connected him to former President Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, and groups including the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and the Innocence Project.

When he was younger, Ellis was a debate-team competitor who carried a briefcase, he said. He grew up in Houston, where his parents each had two jobs. His father, Eligha: a yard man and nurse's aide at a Veterans Affairs hospital. His mother, Oliver Teresa: a nurse's aide and housekeeper.

"I always wanted to look like what I wanted to be," Ellis said. "I always knew I would go to law school. I always knew that if the opportunity presented itself, I'd end up in public office. I knew I would try. Didn't know if I'd win. My father in particular did a good job of teaching me about hard work but also giving me a sense of the hard work I didn't want to do."

Ellis realized the height of his power in 2001, when then-Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff appointed him chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Ratliff, a Republican, said he appointed him as a gesture to Democrats, at a time when the Senate which now has a large Republican majority — was more closely split along party lines.

"When I became lieutenant governor, I felt that that was a good lesson to be learned that that body would function better if you made such a gesture," Ratliff said. "And I knew Rodney would do a good job at it. I also knew that he wouldn't go off the reservation. That is, he would not try to pass something that I wasn't in agreement with, and it worked well, as far as I'm concerned. We balanced the budget, and it was a well-done budget."

Ellis also pushed for the creation of the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission, which studies wrongful convictions and offers recommendations to prevent them, and the Forensic Science Commission.

The James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act passed during the 2001 session, after years of Ellis pushing for it.

The hate crimes legislation, many of his colleagues and friends said, was one of the toughest bills for Ellis to pass. It increased penalties for offenses motivated by race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation and national origin or ancestry.

"He was tenacious. When he was on a mission, he didn't back away," Ratliff said. "He didn't mind taking three or four years to accomplish it. But at the same time, while being tenacious, he was so friendly about it."

One never knows when an issue will be "ripe," Ellis said. He first filed a version of the hate crimes bill in 1991.

"The issue was always sexual orientation," he said of critics. "They danced around, but that's what it was. The tough issues don't always make it the first time around."

As a Harris County commissioner, Ellis said he will continue to fight for criminal justice reforms. Ellis has said the county relies too much on incarcerating low-level and non-violent offenders.

Ellis' work in his new job could have national implications on criminal justice reform, Kase said.

"If you change something in Harris County, if you reform it, you actually have the capacity to affect the rest of the state of Texas, and in fact, given our visibility, you also have the capacity to impact justice systems around the country," she said.

Ellis said his work is not done.

"I'm not dead," he said. "I'm just 62."

Read more coverage of former state Sen. Rodney Ellis:

  • Ellis vied for a Harris County commissioner seat in 2016, opening up his Senate one.
  • An Ellis bill in 2015 expanded access to DNA testing in criminal cases.
  • Ellis backed the 2011 stay of inmate Duane Buck's execution.
  • As acting governor, Ellis postponed the execution of Hank Skinner in 2011.

Disclosure: Texas Tech University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here. 

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Courts Criminal justice Politics State government Death penalty Michael Morton Rodney Ellis Texas Legislature