Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Checking in with the Innocence Project

Checking in with the Innocence Project

April 18th, 2007 at 8:11 am

The formerly unprecedented review of hundreds of convictions in Dallas County continues “slow but pretty steady,” said Jeff Blackburn, director of the Innocence Project of Texas on Tuesday. Since February, when the Project’s alliance with the new Dallas D.A. made headlines, it’s been down to the dirty work: “forms, databases, a lot of really boring crap, but it’s real necessary,” Blackburn said. “I’m not paying attention to much else right now.”

Things should pick up in May, when the summer session begins for most colleges. Law students will conduct most of the reviews. Volunteers will work through the fall. Blackburn hopes to finish next January. By then, they should “be in a pretty solid position to figure out the entire situation” in Dallas County.

Speaking of Dallas, apparently the DNA exonerations that kick-started this case review are also changing some opinions. The Dallas Morning-News editorial board yesterday called for an end to the death penalty in Texas. The potential for flaws in a system that hands out an irreversible punishment became too great in their eyes.

And that uncomfortable truth has led this editorial board to re-examine its century-old stance on the death penalty. This board has lost confidence that the state of Texas can guarantee that every inmate it executes is truly guilty of murder.

They did publish a counter-point from an associate editor arguing for keeping the death penalty. It was a less than convincing effort, at one point arguing that people actually think like this: “I need $50. I could rob the convenience store. But what if the clerk resists or pulls his own gun? I could shoot him, but that could mean a death sentence.”

Regardless, the reversal of the board as a whole was surprising, if not a total shock. Dallas is, after all, “a city that would have rooted for Goliath,” as our Molly Ivins once said.

“I can tell you it was unexpected,” Blackburn said, but “they’ve had a pretty progressive attitude now for a good while.” It’s more important to Blackburn as another data point indicating a shift in the debate. “I wouldn’t call it a true sea change in attitude yet, but I’m sensing a serious change that’s reflected in editorial boards, reflected in the amount of welcoming and warmth we’re receiving in the Legislature. These DNA cases are plowing the road.”

Or to measure it another way, Blackburn said, if five years ago, you’d claimed that Texas had convicted and possibly executed innocent people, “you were just either a nut or a communist or both.”

The next step — and the goal of the case reviews — is to convince the average citizen that these are not isolated mistakes but evidence of systemic problems with the system. From there, a rethinking of the system can begin, although Blackburn maintains a realistic outlook on the pace of change. “What we want to do out of Dallas is give the rest of the state something to talk about … for the next 10 years,” he said.

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