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How some see Texas as the "gold standard" against wrongful convictions

This year, Texas legislators continued efforts to prevent wrongful convictions by passing a law focused on fixing unreliable jailhouse informants, unfair police station lineups and coerced confessions.

Christopher Scott, wrongfully convicted of murder, tells his story next to a photo of fellow exonerees in a Dallas office in July 2017. 

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DALLAS — Every day for more than 12 years, Christopher Scott woke up in a Texas prison cell an innocent man.

He was arrested in 1997 after he and another man, Claude Simmons, were seen in Scott’s car near the home of a robbery-turned-murder in Dallas. Police were looking for two black men in connection with the crime, and Scott and Simmons fit the description.

Both men were convicted of capital murder based on faulty eyewitness testimony and sent to live the rest of their lives in prison while the true criminals went free. The two men had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it cost them their freedom.

But not forever.

Years later, one of the men involved in the murder confessed, setting into motion a process that ended with Scott and Simmons becoming free men.

"It was like the whole wide world was lifted off my shoulders," Scott said recently of his release from prison. "It's like I got a new chance at life, and I'm going to make the most out of it."

In recent years, Texas lawmakers have passed measures aimed at preventing wrongful convictions like Scott’s. That push continued this year. In May, the Legislature passed a bill that regulates the use of jailhouse informants, requires police to record interrogations in serious felony cases and toughens the rules for police station lineups in securing eyewitness identifications. House Bill 34, which took effect this month, also called for new studies on drug field test kits and crime scene investigations.

“It’s terrible to think that a person is wrongfully convicted and incarcerated for a good part of his or her life — that’s just not right,” said Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, who authored HB 34. “But ... one of the problems is when you convict the wrong person, the right person is generally still out there.”

Christopher Scott speaks on his conviction and eventual exoneration.

Texas has long led the nation in the number of people it exonerates, or clears of convictions, based on evidence of innocence. Since 2010, more than 200 people have been exonerated in Texas, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. That’s more than twice as many as any other state during the same period.

State lawmakers took a hard look at wrongful convictions after the high-profile case of Timothy Cole, a war veteran who died in prison, convicted of rape largely based off a flawed photo lineup shown to the victim. In 2009, a decade after Cole died from complications related to asthma, DNA evidence cleared him of the crime, and he was posthumously pardoned by then-Gov. Rick Perry. Since then, lawmakers have passed bills to limit the power of jailhouse informants and set up best practices for police departments conducting lineups for eyewitness identification.

Over the last two years, a group of state lawmakers, lawyers and judges formed a commission and studied the subject again, proposing more solutions to lessen wrongful convictions in HB 34. The measure earned the vote of nearly every state lawmaker and was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in June.

“Texas at this point is the gold standard in innocence reform,” said Michelle Feldman, a legislative strategist at the Innocence Project. “There’s always more to be done ... but I think this law is putting Texas really as a leader.”

Tracking informants

Using the testimony of inmates who were in jail with a defendant as evidence of guilt is a common prosecutorial strategy. These jailhouse informants are often offered something in return for their cooperation, like money or dropped or lessened charges. According to Feldman, these benefits create “a strong incentive to lie.”

Randy Arledge spent more than 14 years in prison for the 1981 murder of a Corsicana woman after his accomplice in an unrelated armed robbery told investigators Arledge confessed to the killing. After DNA evidence pointed to another man in 2011, the accomplice admitted he lied because he was mad at Arledge, but Arledge argues special privileges also encouraged the testimony.

Arledge was exonerated in 2013 and now spends his state money from his wrongful imprisonment on his family — he’s bought houses for his adult children and helps raise his young grandson. From his suburban home south of Houston, Arledge said the state should end the use of jailhouse informants.

“There’ll always be somebody in jail that will lie for you, you know?” Arledge said. “If you don’t stop the jailhouse informers ... the wrongful convictions ain’t ever gonna stop.”

Hear exonoree Randy Arledge on his conviction, sentence and eventual release.

This year, lawmakers didn’t eliminate the program, but they did move to provide more accountability and transparency in the use of these informants. District attorneys must now keep track of all informants and provide the defense the informant’s entire criminal history, as well as any benefits he or she received for testifying in any case. Feldman said no other state matches Texas’ level of tracking and disclosure.

“It’s going to shed light on this secretive system that leads to so many wrongful convictions, and we really hope it’ll be a model for other states in the country to follow,” she said.

In Dallas County, where the state’s first conviction integrity unit formed in 2007 to look into claims of innocence in already closed cases, District Attorney Faith Johnson is excited about the new law, which she said will bring accountability statewide to the informant process.

“It’s about time that we have something uniform that’s going to take place throughout the state as it relates to the use of jailhouse informants,” Johnson said.

Better eyewitnesses

Another major piece of the law adds to existing procedures that police departments must follow while conducting an in-person or photo lineup for eyewitness identification. Now, suspects must not noticeably stick out, witnesses must be informed that the perpetrator could be absent, and police must ask witnesses how confident they are in their selection. And police who conduct lineups will have to be trained in best practices by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. 

For Christopher Scott, a mistaken identification from an eyewitness landed him in prison for more than a decade. The wife of the murder victim saw Scott at the police station and identified him as the killer, according to the commission’s report. Even though she later couldn’t pick him out of a lineup, her testimony at trial led to a conviction.

“The evidence they had, it didn’t say that I committed this crime,” Scott recently said from a southern Dallas office where he now runs a nonprofit to help other wrongfully convicted prisoners. “They didn’t have anything but this lady’s word saying that I was the one that did it.”

He was finally released from prison in 2009 after one of the men involved in the murder, who was in prison for an unrelated robbery, confessed to the crime. Though Scott doesn’t believe recent legislation would have prevented his conviction, he’s been active at the Texas Capitol, fighting for changes to keep other men like him from going to prison.

“As long as we keep stressing about it and talking about it, it has to get better,” he said.

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