January 3, 2009
Dallas County probation program addresses addictions, bipolar disorder
Kimberly Armstrong says she has run from every drug program she was ever ordered to attend. But when she was sent to one offered by Dallas County probation aimed at treating both her drug addiction and bipolar disorder, she decided to stick with it.
"It seemed like a good program. So I thought I'd give it a chance," said Armstrong, 39, who has been sober and on her prescribed bipolar medications since April 8. She said she's stayed because people working with Dual Diagnosis care about her.
"To be honest, the thought of looking the judge in his face and him being disappointed in me keeps me on track," she said. "I want to be one of the statistics that makes it. I'm doing the best I can."
State District Judge Mark Stoltz manages the courtroom portion of the Dual Diagnosis probation program with a compassionate but heavy hand. Each Monday, between 40 and 50 participants fill the courtroom to provide weekly, biweekly or monthly updates, depending on where they are in their treatment process.
His biggest rule is honesty, followed closely by accountability. One by one, Stoltz calls each person's name and talks about what has happened since they last met. Case workers, probation officers, medical professionals and a public defender all gather to provide updates to the judge for each participant.
If someone has a relapse and uses, Stoltz gives that person credit for being honest about it. But there are still repercussions. He starts with making that person write an essay. If it happens again, they get community service. And if the problem persists, he'll order jail time.
But sometimes jail is the first option. One program participant copied one of Armstrong's essays and read it in court earlier this month as his own. The plagiarism got him 24 hours in jail. [Mark Godsey]
January 2, 2009
Groups sue Bush over last-minute rule changes
The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence sued the Bush administration yesterday in hopes of stopping a new policy that would allow people to carry concealed, loaded guns in most national parks and wildlife refuges.
"The Bush administration's last-minute gift to the gun lobby, allowing concealed semiautomatic weapons in national parks, jeopardizes the safety of park visitors in violation of federal law," said Paul Helmke, the group's president. "We should not be making it easier for dangerous people to carry concealed firearms in our parks."
An Interior Department spokeswoman refused to comment on the lawsuit, saying the department does not discuss pending litigation.
It's not the only lawsuit over last-minute regulatory changes that the Bush administration wants to achieve.
Yesterday, California Attorney General Jerry Brown announced that his state is suing the Bush administration to block changes in regulations that are intended to reduce input from federal scientists.
"Unfortunately, the Bush administration has had an antipathy to using sound science," Brown said. "This is the latest assault as Bush goes out the door. It's intolerable."
The lawsuit was filed late Monday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.
The Interior Department issued the revised rules this month. They allow federal agencies to issue permits for mining, logging and similar activities without a review from federal biologists if the agencies' research shows that the project will not affect plants and animals.
The changes also block agencies from using the Endangered Species Act to consider the effects of greenhouse-gas emissions on ecosystems when reviewing projects such as new roads or coal plants on federal land.
Brown is asking the court to block the new rules, which could give the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama time to review them.
The Brady Campaign sued the Interior Department and its secretary, Dirk Kempthorne, as well as the leaders of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service in U.S. District Court. The group wants a federal judge to issue an injunction stopping the elimination of the 25-year-old federal rule that severely restricts loaded guns in national parks.
The Interior Department rule overturns a Reagan-era regulation that has restricted loaded guns in parks and wildlife refuges. That regulation required that firearms be unloaded and placed somewhere not easily accessible, such as in a car trunk. [Mark Godsey]
'Lethal Warriors' in Iraq, linked to string of crimes back home
On Nov. 30, 2007, Kenneth Eastridge, a wiry, heavily tattooed survivor of the fighting, found himself at a rough Colorado Springs bar called the Rum Bay, not far from the unit's Ft. Carson base. Eastridge, a high school dropout from the projects of Louisville, Ky., had joined the Army to escape what seemed the dead-end prospects of civilian life, only to run repeatedly afoul of Army rules and face a court-martial.
Police say the trio plotted a robbery in the company of an Army private, leaving Bressler worried that the private would divulge their plot. Later that night, police say, Bressler shot the soldier to death with a .38-caliber revolver.
Now Eastridge, 25, sits behind bars in a Colorado prison, having agreed to a 10-year sentence in exchange for his testimony.
"Anybody that does crimes of that nature, it goes deeper and farther back than anything in the U.S. Army," said Lt. Col. Brian Pearl, the 2-12's commanding officer. "Nothing here has trained them to do what they are charged with."
Yet there is a larger story of those who fought with the 700-soldier unit: a string of alleged robberies, domestic violence and senseless murder. [Mark Godsey]
Officials describe search for state's top forensic pathologist as tough
Officials are moving closer to hiring Mississippi's first medical examiner in more than a decade.It is progressing," said Sam Howell, director of the State Crime Lab. "They are looking at some candidates to be interviewed."
The medical examiner's post has been vacant since the mid-1990s. During that time, Dr. Steven Hayne performed most of the autopsies.
On Aug. 4, Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson sent out a letter, removing Hayne from the list of approved pathologists.
Simpson said then that the state planned to hire a medical examiner for the $200,000-a-year position.
That salary may sound like plenty, but a number of medical examiners in other states earn well more than $300,000.
Dr. Michael Baden, world-renowned pathologist and former chief medical examiner for New York City, noted that salaries for medical examiners have increased greatly in recent decades but that $200,000 should be enough because Mississippi has a lower standard of living.
The annual salary could possibly be augmented through an association with the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, he said.
But that also could lead to a potential conflict of interest if an allegation of medical malpractice happened to arise in a death case at UMC, he said.
There's also the matter of funding.
Earlier this year, Mississippi lawmakers allocated $500,000 in one-time money toward the medical examiner's office.
Lawmakers have said they'll continue to support the office, but state funds will be harder to come by during this recession.
While Mississippi continues to search for a medical examiner, the state has contracted with Forensic Medical Inc. of Nashville to conduct autopsies here.
In August, the state removed Hayne from the list of approved pathologists after the New York-based Innocence Project accused him of sloppy work and filed a complaint with the state Board of Medical Licensure, calling on the board to strip Hayne of his medical license.
After examining the allegations, the Board of Medical Licensure sided with Hayne, who has said he is the victim of a witch hunt by the Innocence Project and other death penalty opponents. Hayne is now suing project officials for defamation.
Hayne is being sued himself, along with Hattiesburg dentist Michael West, for their testimony in the 1992 rape and slaying of a 3-year-old girl that led to the death sentence for Kennedy Brewer.
Brewer, who is suing the pair for $18 million, was freed after spending 15 years in prison for a crime authorities now say DNA shows he never committed. Another man is now charged with that crime.
In Brewer's 1995 trial, West identified 19 human bite marks on the toddler's body that he concluded could have been made only by Brewer. Defense experts said the marks could have been made by insects after the body was dumped in water. [Mark Godsey]
January 1, 2009
Otis L. Sanford: Cops posing as kids just does not seem right
OK, I get it.
This is about creating a safe school environment and protecting students from the scourge of drug dependency.
It's about zero tolerance, or something close to it, for peddling even small quantities of drugs on or near a school campus.
It's about keeping kids from making a stupid mistake that they will regret, and perhaps pay for, the rest of their lives.
And it's about closing a door that could lead to more serious, even violent criminal activity down the road.
I get all of that, and more.
So why do I feel a slight twinge of uneasiness about what went down last week at Millington Central High School?
A fresh-faced Millington police officer posed as a high school student for four months. The "student" attended classes, took exams, did homework, tolerated cafeteria food -- and allegedly bought drugs from other students.
The undercover sting ended Tuesday with the arrest of 13 students on charges of selling marijuana, Ecstasy and prescription drugs. The charges also included peddling fake drugs as if they were the real thing.
That's 13 students nabbed after a four-month sting at a school where 1,500 students attend.
Millington Police Chief Rick Jewell, who is leaving office next month, set up the undercover operation with permission from Shelby County Schools Supt. Bobby Webb. Millington Central's principal and assistant principal were the only ones at the school in on the ruse.
It was the second major undercover drug sting at the Millington school in less than three years. In April 2006, police arrested 26 students and former students after they sold drugs to undercover officers. Those cops, however, did not pose as students.
In fact, Jewell said, the latest sting is likely the first time in Shelby County that a cop has posed as a student to nab suspected high school drug pushers. [Mark Godsey]
Napolitano backs security tech
As Arizona's Democratic governor since 2003, Napolitano has:
• Pushed state police to use cameras that scan license plates of moving cars to find vehicles that are stolen or linked to a criminal suspect.
• Promoted "face-identification" technology that could help surveillance cameras find wanted people by comparing someone's face with a photo database of suspects.
• Signed a 2007 bill making Arizona one of 12 states that collect and store DNA samples of people accused but not convicted of certain crimes, including murder, burglary, sexual assault and prostitution.
• Proposed an optional state ID for legal citizens only that features a radio-frequency chip to allow authorities to read the card. State lawmakers blocked the effort this year.
"She sees technology as the panacea of all our law enforcement problems and immigration issues," said Alessandra Soler Meetze, head of Arizona's American Civil Liberties Union chapter. "It's like she's embracing these technologies without taking the time to appreciate the privacy implications."
Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Harold Sanders said the state's 25 license plate scanners are "tremendously helpful" because they check for stolen cars by instantly comparing a license plate with a national crime database. The system has read 1.6 million plates and led to 122 arrests since mid-2006, Sanders said.
If confirmed as Homeland Security secretary, Napolitano will have opportunities to deploy technology, including sensors along U.S. borders and airport body scanners that look for weapons on passengers by taking images underneath clothing.
"She's going to have a lot more money to play with" for technology, Meetze said. [Mark Godsey]
New Sentencing Guidelines For Crack, New Challenges
Michael D. Thompson, a former crack cocaine dealer, thought he deserved a break.
Sentenced in 2000 to 15 years and eight months in prison, Thompson asked a federal judge in the District to release him, arguing that he had received an unfair sentence and has turned his life around behind bars, earning a general equivalency diploma and completing a commercial driving course.
Federal prosecutors said that was a terrible idea. Citing Thompson's criminal past and prison disciplinary record, which includes threatening a prison official with a knife, prosecutors argued in court papers that the 37-year-old poses a danger to the community and should complete his sentence.
Thompson's case is one of thousands around the country in which crack offenders and their defense attorneys are sparring with federal prosecutors over how to interpret new sentencing guidelines for crack possession or sale. The guidelines were issued to right old wrongs. But they have led to time-consuming legal challenges dealing with the often long-forgotten consequences of the bloody crack wars in the late 1980s and 1990s.
Defense lawyers say they are correcting systemic sentencing flaws that removed their clients, mostly black men, from their communities for too many years. Federal prosecutors say they are working to prevent bad guys from returning to the streets to wreak more havoc. Both sides say they are seeking justice. [Mark Godsey]
December 31, 2008
Judges rule three-strikes sentence unconstitutional
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case of Cecilio Gonzalez back to federal district court in Los Angeles for resentencing after finding his 2001 penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment, which is prohibited by the 8th Amendment.
The California Penal Code requires a sex offender to register whereabouts annually within five working days of an ex-convict's birthday. Gonzalez had registered in Los Angeles County in May 2000 and confirmed his address a year later, meeting the yearly requirement but violating the deadline of his Feb. 24 birthday.
"This is not a case where my client failed to register. He failed to update his address information that was still good," said Gia Kim, the federal public defender who argued Gonzalez's case to the appeals court.
Bybee also pointed out that Gonzalez, who has already been in prison for more than seven years for this third felony conviction, was facing substantially more severe punishment than that imposed in California for far more serious crimes, such as second-degree murder.
It was unclear how much significance Tuesday's ruling would have for others sentenced to long terms for minor third offenses. [Mark Godsey]
Emotions tested in a year of crime
The criminal landscape of 2008 reminded all of us how fragile — and strange — life can be.
It was a tragic year for police officers, with the Houston Police Department losing three to violent circumstances. As a result, Texas again led the nation for officer deaths in the line of duty.
2008 also was a tragic year for young children who apparently suffered at the hands of their parents — including a 3-month-old boy found stomped to death in a roadside ditch in Galveston and two Pasadena siblings whose burned bodies were found a week after they disappeared on Father's Day.
And it was a year that will be remembered for the bizarre and the downright ghoulish. Two decapitations grabbed the public's attention — that of a beloved deer housed in a wildlife sanctuary at a west Harris County park, the other of a corpse buried in a Humble cemetery in 1921 whose skull was allegedly used by Kingwood teens as a "bong" device to smoke marijuana.
Few police officers are shocked by anything that people might do. But some agree the emotional lows brought on by this year's crimes will be a tough pill to swallow.
"There's no doubt that 2008, in that regard, were some very emotionally bitter times," said Mark Clark, executive director of the Houston Police Officers' Union. "Everybody gets emotionally scarred by this kind of stuff."
Statistically speaking, crime has not changed all that much. Homicides declined in Houston in 2008, dropping by 15 percent from the year before, based on preliminary numbers provided by the Houston Police Department.
As of Tuesday, HPD had investigated 294 homicides, down from 348 homicides reported during the same period in 2007. The statistics are unofficial since they have not yet been reported to the FBI for inclusion in the annual Uniform Crime Report.
In the unincorporated areas of Harris County, homicides increased slightly this year, with the Sheriff's Office investigating the deaths of 71 people killed in 2008 — up from 63 in 2007.
And violent crimes as a whole — homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults — appeared to hold steady in the unincorporated areas of the county, with the numbers hardly budging from 2007 to 2008, said sheriff's Lt. John Legg.
But statistics don't mean much when officers face unexpected tragedies, such as the violent loss of one of their own. [Mark Godsey]
Girding for new marijuana law, state offers enforcement tips
Police officers should issue tickets, similar to a building code citation, to anyone possessing an ounce or less of marijuana, under an advisory released by the state yesterday recommending ways to manage the law decriminalizing possession of the drug.
The law is effective Jan 2.
Violators may appeal the citation - a civil infraction - in court within 21 days or pay the $100 fine set by the statute. Municipalities would be responsible for collecting the fines, according to the recommendations.
With much confusion over how police should handle marijuana possession, ranging from enforcement measures to whether officers themselves can be punished for using the drug, the state's Executive Office of Public Safety and Security released the seven pages of guidelines hoping to set a clear standard before the law takes effect Friday.
The guidelines, which are not binding, were issued even as aspects of the law continue to trigger new questions - such as whether people who smoke marijuana in public face only the civil fine as punishment.
"It gives some people guidance so that they can move forward, so that we can eliminate any confusion as to how this statute is meant to be applied, and alleviate any concerns," said Kevin M. Burke, secretary of Public Safety and Security.
The recommendations also unveiled new interpretations of the initiative petition, similar to acts passed in 13 states, that was approved overwhelmingly by voters in November. Not only is possessing an ounce or less of marijuana a civil offense, but the same amount of any substance - including hashish, or hash oil - with the active ingredient THC would also be decriminalized.
In addition, the state is asking communities to consider passing local ordinances criminalizing the use of marijuana in public, which, as of Friday, would not warrant any punishment beyond the civil citation. [Mark Godsey]
December 30, 2008
N.Y. High Court Bars Surrogate-Elect Over Campaign Contributions
The Court of Appeals on Monday barred Nora S. Anderson from becoming Manhattan surrogate on Jan. 1 pending the outcome of Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau's prosecution of her for allegedly failing to accurately report contributions to her campaign this summer.
A 6-0 court suspended Anderson with pay effective Thursday, when the 10-year term she won earlier this year is to begin. The court gave no reasoning for its decision.
Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye took no part in the deliberations.
Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau will designate an interim judge to fill the opening by early January, said David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the Office of Court Administration.
Anderson is facing a 10-count indictment that she falsely reported $250,000 that flowed into her campaign in the days preceding her hard-fought primary victory in September over two Democratic rivals. Morgenthau contends the money came in donations and loans from attorney Seth Rubenstein, for whom Anderson has worked for nearly a decade, but was not reported accurately by Anderson in filings with the Board of Elections.
Both Anderson and Rubenstein have been free on their own recognizance since their arraignments. Each faces a prison term of 1 1/3 to four years on each of the top six counts of the indictment, all Class E. felonies.
In a letter to the Court of Appeals, Anderson's attorney, Richard Godosky, had argued that the court was not obligated to suspend Anderson as she contested the charges against her. He also urged that if suspension was the court's decision, that it be with pay.
Manhattan's other surrogate, Kristin Booth Glen, confirmed to the New York Law Journal earlier this month that she swore Anderson in as surrogate about a month after the election. Godosky argued before the Court of Appeals that because she has already been sworn in, Anderson cannot legally practice law after Jan. 1, even if she is prohibited from taking the bench as her prosecution unfolds.
Godosky also told the court that Anderson contributes $800 a month toward the care of her elderly mother, who has Alzheimer's disease, and her terminally ill brother, who lost his job when the firm he worked for was destroyed when the World Trade Center towers were felled on Sept. 11, 2001. Surrogates are paid $136,700 a year.
Godosky, of Godosky & Gentile, said Monday the court's determination to suspend Anderson with pay is a "decision that they've made consistently" in cases where judges face felony charges unrelated to the performance of their official duties. He declined further comment. [Mark Godsey]
Judge-Elect, Indicted, Is Suspended by Court
The New York State Court of Appeals on Monday ordered the suspension of Judge-elect Nora S. Anderson while she faces criminal charges accusing her of committing financial fraud during her campaign to become a Surrogate’s Court judge in Manhattan.
The suspension will take effect on Thursday, the same day that Ms. Anderson was scheduled to take her seat on the bench, according to Gary Spencer, a spokesman for the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. A temporary replacement will be assigned by Ann Pfau, the state’s chief administrative judge.
The appeals court judges voted 6 to 0 to suspend Ms. Anderson, Mr. Spencer said. Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye did not participate because she is going to retire from the court on Wednesday and will not be on the bench when the suspension takes effect.
In most instances, judges facing criminal charges are suspended with pay if the charges have nothing to do with their official duties on the bench, Mr. Spencer said.
A call to Ms. Anderson’s lawyer, Gustave H. Newman, was not returned.
In September, Ms. Anderson rode a well-financed campaign to victory in the Democratic primary in the Surrogate’s Court race. She beat Justice Milton Tingling and John J. Reddy Jr., a lawyer with the Manhattan public administrator’s office. Ms. Anderson was uncontested in the November general election.
This month she was indicted in State Supreme Court in Manhattan on charges that she had concealed the source of $250,000 worth of contributions to her campaign. Prosecutors with the Manhattan district attorney’s office also charged Seth Rubenstein — the head of the Brooklyn law firm where Ms. Anderson works, who also served as her campaign adviser — who they say funneled the money illegally to Ms. Anderson’s campaign account. [Mark Godsey]
Report: Police officer deaths down in 2008
Deaths of law enforcement officers in the line of duty fell sharply in 2008, with the number killed by gunfire reaching its lowest level in more than five decades, according to a report published Monday.
The statistics show 2008 has been "one of the safest years for U.S. law enforcement in decades," wrote two groups: the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund and Concerns of Police Survivors.
Based on preliminary data, the groups found that 140 law enforcement officers were killed in 2008 -- 86 of them accidentally and 54 intentionally.
Just the year before, the group found 181 deaths -- 108 of them accidental and 73 intentional.
"Fewer officers were killed by gunfire in 2008 than in any year since 1956," the report says. "Preliminary data indicate 41 officers died in firearms-related incidents this year, compared with 68 in 2007, a reduction of 40 percent."
In a statement accompanying the report, Craig W. Floyd, chairman of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, said, "2007 was a wake-up call for law enforcement in our country, and law enforcement executives, officers, associations and trainers clearly heeded the call, with a renewed emphasis on officer safety training, equipment and procedures."
He listed reasons for the drop in officer deaths, including better training and equipment; increased use of less-lethal weapons; more officers wearing bullet-resistant vests; and an increased awareness among officers that "every assignment is potentially life-threatening."
Floyd also cited a downturn in violent crime in general and what he called a tougher criminal justice system.
"The reduction in firearms-related deaths is especially stunning, given the tremendous firepower possessed by so many criminals today," Floyd added in the statement.
The report's figures are different from those held by the FBI. For example, the FBI lists 140 law enforcement officers killed in 2007 -- 83 accidentally and 57 intentionally. [Mark Godsey]
December 29, 2008
Study: Houston leads in homicides by black youths
As violent crime nationally slows in growth or declines, the United States is facing a dramatic — but hardly noticed — increase in murders by and of young African-American men, a Northeastern University study released today reports.
Between 2002 and 2007, the number of black male juveniles murdered nationally increased by 31 percent and the number of black perpetrators by 43 percent. The increases were even greater, the report said, when guns were used as weapons.
Focusing on the period between 2000-01 and 2006-07, the study found Houston at the top of a list of 28 U.S. cities, with a 139 percent increase in the number of young African-Americans suspected in killings.
In 2006-07, 129 young black men were murdered in the city, up from 42 in 2000-01.
Those increases came as homicides by and of young white men slowed or declined. In Houston, the number of white offenders dropped by 10 percent. Nationally, FBI statistics showed murder decreased 1.3 percent in 2007 from the previous year.
"I don't want to suggest that this is an epidemic, a crisis situation," said study co-author James Fox, professor of criminal justice and law, policy and society at the university in Boston. "But it's absolutely a growing concern, not a one-year blip."
Fox and his associate, criminologist Marc Swatt, argued in the report that the increases occurred as the federal government cut support for community policing and intervention programs put in place to combat a rise in gang violence in the 1990s.
Though current violence falls short of levels in the '90s, the report's authors called for renewal of government support for intervention. "Let this small upturn serve as a thunderous wake-up call that crime prevention needs to be a priority again," they wrote.
"Kids can't wait, and crime doesn't wait," Fox said. "There is a significant need here — a large group of kids with inadequate, inferior education and a ready access to guns. A teenager with a gun in his hand is a dangerous individual."
Houston community activist Quanell X called the study a "blanket indictment of the city and government officials in the city and a greater indictment of ministers and political leaders of the African-American community."
He called for a citywide black leadership summit to find ways to end the violence.
"Until African-American leaders, both spiritual and political, male and female, can get into that room and check their egos at the door and say, 'To hell with party politics,' and walk out of that room with a plan all of us can have a part in," the killings will continue, he said.
Shape Community Center's Deloyd Parker questioned the way the study was conducted. "When they say 'offender,' does that mean someone who's charged with a crime or been convicted?" he said. "Sometimes even being convicted doesn't mean you're actually guilty." [Mark Godsey]
Gov. Rod Blagojevich pardons 22 people
Marcus Lyons was so bitter after leaving prison in 1991 that he tried to nail himself to a wooden cross outside the DuPage County Courthouse.
On Friday, two decades after he was convicted of a rape he did not commit, Lyons was one of 22 people pardoned by Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Lyons, 51, said he felt fortunate to have received clemency, knowing that a growing backlog has left hundreds of others waiting for decisions from the governor.
But Lyons, now living in Indiana, said he is still upset with police officers from Woodridge, where the crime took place in 1987. He said Friday's pardon can't return the one thing he wants most.
"You can never get your reputation back," he said.
Most of the other 21 people pardoned on Friday appeared to have already served short sentences for such crimes as burglary, forgery or robbery, with a few more serious cases of battery.
The "pardon based on innocence" allows Lyons to apply for about $85,000 in compensation for the 3 years he served, said his attorney, Jane Raley of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law.
But perhaps more important, she said, "it begins to address the enormous suffering he's endured."
On Nov. 30, 1987, a 29-year-old woman who lived in a Woodridge apartment complex told police she had been raped. She erroneously identified Lyons as her attacker. [Mark Godsey]
State senators study case of innocent man who died in prison
Legislators may change state law to recognize the innocence of a Fort Worth man convicted in Lubbock more than 20 years ago.
State Sens. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, and Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, may clarify how the state compensates and exonerates wrongfully convicted inmates who die in prison.
The work, along with recognition by Texas courts, could bring closure after 22 years to the family of Timothy Brian Cole and formally recognize what could be the country's first posthumous exoneration.
"I think we need to recognize that for the family," Duncan said. "When the government deprives somebody of liberty, that's a pretty significant right."
Texas has cleared nearly three dozen inmates through DNA testing over the last 14 years. Officials could not name a case in this state or another where testing has uncovered the innocence of the dead.
Legislation Duncan authored seven years ago gave inmates with a legitimate innocence claim easier access to DNA testing. A separate bill by Ellis laid out rules for compensating the innocent Texas had imprisoned.
"I think this basically improves the reliability of our prosecutions and, hopefully, provides some assurance to the public that the criminal justice system has checks and balances," Duncan said in a late November interview. "Hopefully, maintains the integrity of the justice system."
Duncan's bill took effect in April 2001. He knew proponents believed DNA would clear many inmates. But he never expected the state would find 35, he said.
"I just remember thinking that day, You do some things in the legislative world, but we made a difference in those guys' lives," Duncan said.
The new rules renewed Jerry Wayne Johnson's interest in a long-settled rape case.
The former Lubbock resident hoped to clear himself in the rape of a 15-year-old girl abducted at knife point from her high school. A Lubbock jury gave Johnson a life sentence for the crime in 1987 after two eyewitnesses put him at the scene.
But from his state jail cell outside of Snyder he began to work on another case as well. He looked for an inmate he said he heard sobbing in a Lubbock County cell hours after a Lubbock jury convicted the man of rape. Johnson knew that Tim Cole was innocent.
Johnson had tried to draw attention to the case years before, after he knew the statute of limitations for the crime had expired. More than 20 years after a black man abducted and raped a Texas Tech student from a church parking lot, Cole's mother read a letter from Johnson promising that a DNA test would prove that he, not Cole, had committed the crime.
Cole died in prison of an asthma attack in 1999. The former Texas Tech student maintained his innocence to the end, and in 2008, DNA testing requested by the Lubbock County District Attorney's office proved he had told the truth.
But the legislation Ellis and Duncan moved through the 2001 session assumed the inmate would be alive to press his claim. It never occurred to Ellis that evidence could come forward after an innocent man had died.
"His case is another example of the need for Texas to take responsibility and, at the very least, compensate the families of the wrongfully convicted in these posthumous exoneration cases," Ellis said. "If I had thought of a circumstance like this, I would have handled it in the bill to begin with."
Instead, the lone amendment attached to the bill legislators passed specifically excluded payments to the spouses or estates of wrongfully convicted Texans once they have died.
Counties and law enforcement agencies must only keep DNA evidence or other materials tied to a case so long as the inmate lives, under Duncan's legislation. The law does not compel the testing that Lubbock's district attorney's office preformed - even the existence of the evidence after so many years was a fluke.
Duncan and Ellis said ahead of the session they would work on whatever means it took to make the laws reflect issues brought about by Cole's case. [Mark Godsey]
Pa. public-records law changing
Pennsylvania state, county and local governments will be operating under a new set of rules in 2009 when a new Right-To-Know Law goes into effect.
“The big difference is the burden of proving a record is not public is on the agency, rather than on the members of the public,” said Chambersburg Borough Secretary Tanya Mickey, who has been named the borough’s open records officer.
That will be another difference, with governments designating to whom those records should go, Mickey said. The borough’s updated policy and a form to request information soon will be available on Chambersburg’s Web site (www.borough.chambersburg.pa.us), she said.
“The district has been working several months to fully comply with the law,” which was passed in February, said Sylvia Rockwood, director of information services for the Chambersburg Area School District. “All district administrators have attended a two-hour training conducted by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
“We’ve set clear procedures and notified all employees of the importance of the law.”
The law provides that, once a request has been made, a government agency has five days to respond to the request and, if the information is not exempted under the law, up to 30 days to provide the requested information. An agency can request an extension of time to gather records, but if a request is denied, it has to be in writing with legal citations and there is an appeals procedure for the requester, according to the law.
That does not mean that any information requested by a member of the public will have to be obtained through a formal request, said Franklin County Deputy Chief Clerk Jean Byers, the county’s open records officer.
“We sent out an e-mail to our division leaders asking them to have all the departments and agencies under them to compile a list of what we’d call normal requests ... that they’d continue to hand out without a request form,” Byers said. [Mark Godsey]