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Texas justice system has major flaws says Corpus Christi Caller-Times

Texas justice system has major flaws » Corpus Christi Caller-Times

Editorial, Sept 13, 2009

For the past three years in Texas, news reports have revealed that dozens of innocent people have been convicted of violent crimes they didn’t commit. At least 38 men in Texas spent decades in prison based on wrongful convictions and the state will now make compensation payments for these exonerees.

The exonerations in Texas have resulted from the revolution that DNA testing has done for the criminal justice system since 1989. They confirm the fact that something has gone terribly wrong in the prosecution of oh so many cases in Texas.

One DNA exoneree is Thomas McGowan, who will soon be paid $1.8 million by the state for spending 23 years in prison for a rape and robbery he didn’t commit. He wants to use the money to buy a three-bedroom house. McGowan was exonerated last year on the basis of DNA tests.

He is one of 38 DNA exonerees in Texas. Each case is a terrible indictment of the system. James Woodard spent 27 years in prison for a murder that DNA testing confirmed he did not commit; he is due to receive $2.2 million. Steven Phillips spent 24 years in prison for sexual assault and burglary; he will get $1.9 million. Charles Chatman, imprisoned for 26 years for a wrongful conviction of rape, said the money “will bring me some independence. Other people have had a lot of control over my life.”

It is commendable that Texas is trying to compensate these men for the terrible injustice they have suffered. Still, an open question is how could so many innocent men spend years locked up for crimes they didn’t commit? How could the system fail so badly? This is a challenge to our concepts of justice and it will remain a challenge until measures are taken to prevent it from ever happening again.

Even more disturbing is the possibility that the state executed an innocent man. In an article headlined “Trial by Fire,” the current issue of The New Yorker examines in detail the investigation, prosecution and trial of Cameron Todd Willingham, who lived with his family in Corsicana. Willingham was convicted of killing his three young daughters in a house fire caused, fire investigators said, by arson. He was executed in 2004.

When questions arose about the evidence that convicted Willingham, fire experts commissioned by the Innocence Project concluded that the evidence was simply wrong. In 2005, Texas established a commission to investigate error by forensic experts. Willingham’s was one of the first cases reviewed and, as the article reports, the noted fire scientist Craig Beyler concluded in a scathing report that fire investigators in Willingham’s case had no scientific basis for claiming the fire was arson and they ignored evidence that contradicted their theory.

If the state of Texas has not been well-served by its criminal justice system — and 38 DNA exonerees say it has not — then can we be sure that an innocent man was not executed for a crime he didn’t commit? The fact that many innocent people have been convicted and sentenced to prison suggests that innocent people have also been executed. This should warrant another look at the death penalty, not on the basis of moral objections, but on the basis of competence, on whether the system is functioning correctly, beyond that shadow of a doubt.

We have never been an opponent of the death penalty, and we are not ready to reject capital punishment in all circumstances. But the miscarriages of justice revealed by the spate of DNA exonerations in Texas raise grave doubts about our criminal justice system’s ability to sort out the difference between those who commit a crime and those hapless individuals ensnared by bad police work, mistaken eyewitnesses, and prosecutors eager to convict at all costs. Can we trust the system to convict and execute only the guilty and not the innocent? Can we be sure of that? Not anymore.

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