Submitted by Jeff Leach, State Representative
Michael Morton. Christopher Scott. Timothy Cole. You may not know these names now, but I hope that upon hearing their chilling stories you will never forget them. Michael Morton served nearly 25 years in a Texas prison for a 1986 murder. Christopher Scott spent 12 years and seven months in prison for a 1997 murder. Timothy Cole was locked away 13 years for a rape that occurred in 1985. Not one of these men committed the crimes for which they were convicted and sentenced to prison. These men – and many like them – are victims of prosecutorial misconduct, stripped of their freedoms by the State.
Research shows that the number of wrongful convictions has increased at an unprecedented rate. Since 1989, Texas has experienced well over 100 exonerations and continues to lead the nation (alongside Illinois and New York) in wrongful convictions. Dallas County alone has reported 24 exonerations over the last 12 years, the second highest county in the nation. Since 1992, Texas has paid more than $65 million in compensation to 89 exonerees.
This is a problem that, for too long, has been swept under the rug as some people claim that wrongful convictions, though not easy to stomach, are simply a reality of an imperfect criminal justice system. I simply refuse to accept that assertion. Texas cannot afford to kick the proverbial can down the road on addressing prosecutorial misconduct. The day for real and substantive reform has arrived and we must seize it.
The good news is that the horrific stories of Morton, Scott and Cole have brought notable and much needed attention to some very real flaws in our criminal justice system. In the cases of Mr. Morton and Mr. Cole, the prosecution withheld key evidence from the defense that would ultimately exonerate both men. Since then, the true criminals in both instances have been convicted based on DNA evidence and witness testimony.
Since his release from prison, Mr. Morton has taken up the banner of the cause, graciously working with Legislators, Judges, District Attorneys and defense attorneys to help end the practice of prosecutorial misconduct. I can say first-hand that his courage to shine a light in a dark place has emboldened our state’s leaders to put an end to this emerging problem.
Unfortunately, Mr. Cole’s release from prison came too late. After spending 13 long years incarcerated, Mr. Cole passed away in prison at the early age of 39 and was robbed of his ability to celebrate his exoneration with loved ones and to once again live free. In 2009, he received Texas’ first posthumous exoneration.
I am unashamedly and passionately pro-life. I believe the most basic duty of government is to protect innocent life – from the womb to the tomb – which is why I am equally as passionate about protecting innocent defendants as I am about protecting the unborn.
This is why I am honored to Joint-Author House Bill 166, authored by my friend and colleague, Representative Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio), which would create a commission of nine members appointed by the Governor to investigate wrongful convictions for the purpose of singling out the core causes of exonerations. Named the “Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission,” this nine-member commission would submit its findings to governmental agencies, identify any patterns of prosecutorial misconduct, and propose solutions through legislation or procedural changes, among several other tasks, all at no expense to the taxpayer. While this legislation is only a small step towards resolving this growing trend, it is a step in the right direction no less, and I am proud of the bi-partisan support it has received. We owe it to our citizens to make this right and the time is ripe for the Legislature to act.
Last week, our son, Brady, turned five. To celebrate, Brady and I spent the day together in Austin, where he led the House Chamber in the Pledge of Allegiance.