AUSTIN (AP) — State Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson called for a special commission to investigate wrongful convictions, suggesting Wednesday that public faith in the legal system may be undermined given that Texas leads the nation in prisoners set free by DNA testing.
In his biannual address to the Legislature, the chief justice of Texas' highest civil court told lawmakers that "if innocent people are rotting in prison for crimes they did not commit, we certainly have not achieved justice for all."
Jefferson pointed to statistics showing that over the last 25 years, 117 Texans have been exonerated — 47 of those by DNA testing, the most nationwide. Those figures are not new, but Jefferson used them to again call for "a commission to investigate each instance of exoneration, to assess the likelihood of wrongful convictions in future cases and to establish statewide reforms."
Though the Texas Court of Appeals is the highest criminal court, Jefferson was speaking for the entire judiciary in his speech.
Texas lawmakers came close to establishing an innocence commission during the last session two years ago. Jefferson saluted Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, a San Antonio Democrat, for sponsoring a similar measure this year. He also hailed Houston Democratic Sen. Rodney Ellis, a national chairman of the Innocence Project, which specializes in using DNA testing to overturn wrongful convictions.
Jefferson said cases overturned by new DNA evidence "leave us with the distinct impression that we today suffer from a systemic deficit in our collective approach to the way we decide how to administer criminal justice." He mentioned the case of Michael Morton, an Austin grocery store inventory manager who spent 25 years in prison for his wife's slaying before DNA evidence exonerated him in 2011.
The chief justice also noted that Texas has a "top-notch judicial system" but only for those who can afford legal services. He urged more funding for state legal aid programs and said that despite some recent gains, Texas still ranks 48th in per capita funding for indigent defense.
Jefferson also criticized officials for over-ticketing in Texas schools, saying "we have elected to give our children tickets for the kind of misbehavior that, in the old days, landed you and me in the principal's office."
He said an estimated 30,000 misdemeanor tickets are issued annually statewide, adding "we are criminalizing our children for non-violent offenses."
"We must keep our children in school and out of our courts to give them the opportunity to follow a path of success, not a path toward prison," Jefferson said, drawing sustained applause.
Last month, an official court of inquiry concluded testimony on whether former Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson illegally withheld evidence that might have cleared Michael Morton of the murder of his wife in 1986. Morton served about 25 years in prison before DNA evidence exonerated him.
The court of inquiry judge has yet to issue his ruling.
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