innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Right, wrong and DNA

This article appeared in the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram:

Right, wrong and DNA

Star-Telegram
Picture a 50-year-old convict standing in front of a judge in Dallas County, once again pleading his innocence in a crime committed more than 23 years ago.

On the one hand, there was something mighty right about what played out Wednesday morning in Judge John Creuzot's courtroom. On the other hand, there was something very wrong.

James Waller was convicted of raping a 12-year-old boy in 1983 and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He served 10 years in the penitentiary before being paroled in 1993 and has been trying ever since to prove he was not guilty of the crime.

During a hearing in Creuzot's court Wednesday, Waller was with attorney Barry Scheck and other lawyers representing the New York-based Innocence Project, and they presented conclusive DNA evidence that Waller did not commit the crime.

What was right about what happened that day was that the judge apologized for the injustice and vowed to expedite the procedures to clear Waller's name. What was so troubling is that Waller is the 12th person in five years in Dallas County to be cleared through DNA testing.

That is an alarming figure by any measure, and something of which Dallas County and the entire state of Texas ought to be ashamed.

More than 185 people in 32 states, according to Innocence Project data, have been exonerated through DNA testing. Dallas County alone has more such cases than most of those states.

For the third time, state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, will introduce legislation this month to create an Innocence Commission in Texas that will be designed to investigate wrong convictions.

Several states, including Californian, Pennsylvania, Illinois and North Carolina, already have such commissions.

In the past two legislative sessions, Ellis' bill never made it out of committee. This year, the bill -- or perhaps one even more comprehensive -- should not only make it to the Senate floor but should be passed by both chambers and signed into law.

While they're at it, legislators should fund the state's share of the University of North Texas System Center for Human Identification in Fort Worth for work that the Legislature has ordered sent to it.

Given that the majority of criminal cases don't involve DNA evidence, imagine how many other wrongly convicted people might be sitting in Texas prisons with no hope of ever being exonerated.

These cases from Dallas County alone are a blight on the criminal justice system. Surely our lawmakers can find a way to address this problem to correct and help prevent other miscarriages of justice.

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