In September, new law aims to get convictions right the first time

Wiring on a fence at a Texas state prison. (Nexstar File Photo)
Wiring on a fence at a Texas state prison. (Nexstar File Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — As a judge weighs whether Greg Kelley will get a new trial, a new state law will take effect in September that aims to help get convictions right the first time.

The Kelley case aside, people in Central Texas have seen several high-profile convictions overturned recently. Dan and Fran Keller were recently declared innocent after spending 23 years in prison accused of child sex abuse. Michael Morton spent nearly 25 years behind bars before being cleared of his wife’s murder. Then there’s Timothy Cole who died in prison after being convicted of rape. DNA cleared him after his death.

“If you don’t have the right guy, well, then the real right guy that should have been convicted, is out on the street,” said Sam Bassett, a criminal defense attorney in Austin and a member of the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission, a select team formed to improve current policies and laws.

The team made several recommendations that convinced lawmakers to pass House Bill 34 earlier this year. Starting in September, officers will be required to record audio for serious felony interrogations.

“It’s more time consuming so it has made it more difficult. But it’s also more valuable, you can find things that are helpful to your case,” said Bassett.

Also, after a witness identifies a suspect, police will gauge how certain that witness is and make a record of it. It hopes to add facts about the process that can push subjective human factors out of the way of witness questioning and testimony.

“At least we will have a record and I think that’s going to be very helpful,” said Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo. “A lot of times they’re nervous and they are not altogether sure. They are more inclined to give an answer that they think that law enforcement will be pleased with when they give it.”

The author in the Texas Senate was Sen. Charles Perry, R- Lubbock, who told KXAN, “The passage of wrongful conviction reforms benefits all sectors of society and builds trust in the criminal justice system. As elected officials, we must provide law enforcement with the proper tools to ensure justice is served to all that engage the system.”

Also set out in the new law, a defendant will be told if testimony comes from a jailhouse informant and what that informant got in return. The Texas Forensic Science Commission will be required to conduct a study on the use of drug field tests kits and another study on the way crime scene investigations are conducted.

To read the full recommendations click here. 

According to the National Registry of Exonerations, Texas had the most exonerations in 2015. Since 1989, the state has had 323 exonerations. The data shows the majority of the exonerations were for drug cases. Only about 13 percent of the exonerations were for murder convictions.

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