Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Statesman: Compensation for unjust convictions in Texas

The following is the Austin American-Statesman's editorial in support of the Timothy Cole Act, which passed the House last week and is waiting for the Senate's vote.
Compensation for unjust convictions in Texas
Timothy Cole Act would honor signature victim of wrongful conviction who died
in prison.

It's rightly being named the Timothy Cole Act. And if it's passed by the
Legislature, which it should be, it will be the influence of Cole — who died a
decade ago while in prison — that gave it the momentum to become law.

Under the measure, compensation for people who were wrongfully imprisoned
would increase to a lump sum payment of $80,000 per year of incarceration, up
from the current $50,000. It would direct payments to the next of kin in cases
in which those who were wrongfully jailed die before they were exonerated.

This is a good bill that the House passed last week. Now it's up to the Texas
Senate to follow suit, and the chances look good, according to Senate
sponsors, Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, and Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. The bill
could come up for a vote this week.

The legislation is likely to require a constitutional amendment to pardon the
deceased Cole, who spent about 14 years in prison for a crime he did not
commit. The Cole case drew national attention earlier this year, being called
Texas' first posthumous DNA exoneration.

While a student at Texas Tech University in 1985, Cole was convicted of raping
fellow student Michele Mallin. Police zeroed in on Cole, though he did not fit
the profile of the person who had raped several women in the Lubbock area.
Mallin had identified him as her attacker in a rigged lineup, underscoring
problems with eyewitness identification procedures. But this year she joined
Cole's family in seeking post-mortem exoneration for him after DNA evidence
cleared Cole and fingered another person, who ultimately confessed to the
crime. Tragically, it was too late for Cole, who died of asthma behind bars
while serving a 25-year sentence.

The legislation in his name would provide financial compensation to Cole's
mother, Ruby Session, who never gave up pursuing her son's innocence. In
addition to lump sum payments, the bill offers monthly annuity payments for
life, health insurance and 120 hours of tuition courses at a community college
or state university.

If that sounds expensive, consider that it could actually save the state money
by preventing lawsuits and avoiding large settlements and legal fees. Those
who are awarded benefits would forfeit their rights to sue the state. And the
legislation would not reward people who were exonerated but went on to commit
other crimes. They would not qualify for benefits.

The best reason to pass the legislation is because it is the right thing to
do. No one can give back the time or erase the miseries endured in prison. And
Texas leads the nation in the number of people, 38, who have been exonerated
by DNA testing. Perhaps attaching a cost to wrongful convictions will help
improve the legal system.

In any case, Texas owes compensation in the way of money and benefits to those
whose lives were unjustly disrupted and destroyed by guilty verdicts and
prison. That is the least we can do.

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