Friday, 8 August 2008

Legislators, Exonerees Call for Criminal Justice Reform

August 4, 2008

In the 1980s, Charles Chatman, Billy James Smith, and James Woodard were arrested, tried, and convicted of aggravated sexual assault and murder crimes and spent a total of 70 years behind bars.

All three are now free men, but none of them were ever guilty of the crimes for which they were incarcerated.

Mr. Chatman, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Woodard represent the hundreds of thousands of men and women who are currently serving prison sentences for crimes they did not commit, proof that the criminal justice system in America is in need of reform.

To discuss the prevalence of wrongful convictions and the role DNA technology will play in increasing the number of exonerations in Dallas County and around the country,

Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson hosted a panel discussion of legislators, legal representatives and recently exonerated men at Cedar Valley College last weekend. "There is no greater failure in any part of democracy than the incarceration of the wrongfully accused," said Congresswoman Johnson.

"We all expect this system to work, but it doesn't. We expect that when a judge finds someone guilty he is, but that just isn't the case," said Dallas County Criminal District Court No. 4 Judge John Creuzot.

Saturday's panel discussion was more than an ideological think tank that only paid lip service, said Congressman John Conyers, the first African American to chair the U.S. judiciary commission. He said the discussion was meant to generate ideas that would translate into meaningful reform.

"If you're rich and guilty, you're likely to not go to prison, but if you're poor and innocent then your chances of going to prison increase significantly," said Mr. Conyers.

Wrongful convictions can occur for a host of reasons; however, the most common are due to eye witness misidentification, false forensic testimony, erroneous "snitch" testimonials, false or coerced criminal confessions and suppression of evidence.

"If you don't want a faulty conviction, it would help to not be broke, not to be black and to not have an incompetent lawyer," said Senator Rodney Ellis.

Unfortunately, many people will plead guilty for an offense because they don't have faith in the system, choosing to take the lesser prison sentence for a crime they didn't commit instead of placing their fate in the hands of jurors eager for a conviction, Ellis added.

DNA technology is proving to be an effective method for proving the innocence-or guilt-of men and women behind bars.

Thirty-three men have been exonerated in Texas since 1984, more than in any state in the nation. Due to its history of preserving records and evidence, Dallas County has freed more wrongfully incarcerated prisoners than any county in country.

At the helm of Dallas County's crusade to reincorporate justice into the criminal justice system is District Attorney Craig Watkins whose partnership with the Innocence Project of Texas has facilitated the freeing of men like Mr. Chatman.

"I'm just letting innocent people out of jail," said Mr. Watkins who has received more than an ounce of criticism for his justice reform measures. "I hope this hug-a-thug mentality catches on because I have no intention on changing my philosophy any time soon."

But DNA testing will be less than fully effective in a system that, according to some, is flawed to the core and structured to be against the minorities and the poor.

"I am not optimistic about Texas correcting its behavior on its own," said Innocence Project of Texas attorney Jeff Blackburn. "It's going to take federal mandates. Texas is a national embarrassment, and it should be until it cleans up its act."

Whereas the Innocence Project of Texas is a non-profit organization with limited funds and resources, every case cannot be investigated, resulting in innocent victims on both sides of the aisle. The community would be better served if the correct verdicts were handed down the first time, Mr. Blackburn says.

Meanwhile, Mr. Chatman and Mr. Smith say they are adjusting to life outside prison.

"I'm getting there. It's been a long process, but I know God has His hand on my life," said Mr. Chatman who was exonerated seven months ago after spending 27 years incarcerated for a sexual assault he didn't commit.

Despite still waiting for a pardon from Gov. Rick Perry and being unable to find employment because he his record has yet to be expunged, Mr. Chatman says he's glad to be a free man. However, he says his happiness is bated by the knowledge that there are still men and women behind bars who shouldn't be.

"Although we are here, we are not the only ones," Chatman said. "For every innocent person convicted, there is a guilty person walking the street committing crime. If that's all we want [a conviction], then this is a poor place to be. Incarceration might not be so bad."

Although Mr. Chatman showed restrained enthusiasm about being released from prison life, Mr. Woodard had no qualms about expressing his feelings.

"I'm excited to be out. I'm glad to be out," he said. "I try not to look back because who wants to relive a bad dream? I don't."

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