Bill Addresses Changing Science in Criminal Appeals
Advocates are backing a renewed push to streamline the appeals process for those who were convicted based on science that has since been discredited. Senate Bill 344, filed Monday by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, would establish a statute expressly allowing Texas courts to overturn convictions in cases where the forensic science that originally led to the verdict has changed. State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, filed a companion bill, HB 967, on Tuesday.
Though the proposal has failed twice before, Whitmire said that several recent Court of Criminal Appeals decisions may make it more likely to pass, and that prosecutors who have opposed it in the past should come around. “Why wouldn’t we want to find out there’s flawed evidence based on new science?" he said.
Currently, people convicted of a crime in Texas can submit a writ of habeas corpus to the Court of Criminal Appeals, in which they ask for a new trial based on evidence that was not available when they were originally convicted. If the science used to convict them has changed, there is no special guideline allowing the court to grant them a new trial, and the judges often disagree about whether to do so.
Supporters of the bill point to the history of DNA testing as an example for why the change is needed. In 1998, the Court of Criminal Appeals denied a new trial to Roy Criner, then serving 99 years for a rape and murder, even though new DNA evidence suggested that Criner was innocent. Then-Gov. George W. Bush pardoned Criner in 2000, and in 2001, the Legislature created Chapter 64 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which streamlined the process for new testing of DNA.
Well good for Texas!