AUSTIN, April 19 -- In the state with the nation's busiest death row and an increasing number of post-conviction DNA exonerations, legislators are urging the governor to investigate the causes of mistaken convictions.
On the eve of the fifth scheduled execution this year of a Texas inmate, a state senator proposed giving the newly created Governor's Criminal Justice Advisory Council subpoena power and the authority to examine the cases of exonerated inmates, and to identify the causes of the erroneous convictions.
To date, 15 inmates have been released from prison as a result of DNA testing. Lawyers involved in the exonerations said Tuesday the cases of two inmates, executed by lethal injection in 2000 and in 2004, should be reexamined through DNA testing or other means to determine whether their death sentences were appropriate. A council with investigative powers could do just that, said Barry C. Scheck, co-director of the New York-based Innocence Project.
"Texans deserve a criminal justice system they can trust protects the innocent and punishes only the guilty," said state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D).
He lauded Gov. Rick Perry (R) for creating the council but said it needs certain tools "to take the next step toward reaching" the governor's stated goal of ensuring "justice, fairness and public confidence in the criminal justice system."
Those tools, Ellis proposed in a bill discussed Tuesday by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, would include subpoena and other investigative authority.
Perry announced the creation of the council in mid-March, saying it would move Texas toward "a more perfect system of justice." He said the council, whose members have yet to be appointed, would research and advise state officials and legislators on issues such as advancements in DNA testing. The panel would also review state laws to ensure criminal procedures allow the use of new technologies and that courts have adequate authority in post-conviction legal proceedings "to ensure that justice is carried out."
But using subpoenas and other investigative techniques to look into individual cases is "not the vision the governor has," Perry spokesman Robert Black said.
"The council is not intended to be a vehicle to examine or reexamine guilt or innocence," Black said. "It is designed to recommend general changes in the procedures or policies we operate under -- if there need to be changes in those. . . . Guilt and innocence are determined in a courtroom and vetted through the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles."
Although some states recently have been reexamining the death penalty, Texas continues to lead the country in the number of executions. Last week, the New York Legislature refused to reinstate the death penalty, while North Carolina and Alabama legislators are seriously considering death penalty moratoriums. Since 1982, Texas has put 340 prisoners to death. At least five more are scheduled for lethal injections this month and next.
Death penalty moratorium bills have been introduced in the Texas Legislature this session, but observers give them virtually no chance of passing. So scrutinizing systemic and specific problems within the state criminal justice system -- such as recently exposed problems with the Houston police lab or suspected misconduct among officials involved in death penalty cases -- is needed, said a proponent of criminal justice reform.
"The governor has taken a first step to resolving this," said Steve Hall, director of Stand Down Texas, a group that advocates a moratorium on executions in Texas.
But, he said, the new council needs investigative authority.
"There's widespread recognition that there needs to be this kind of examination, and hopefully, the governor's council will do that," Hall said. "Let's do everything we can to make it work."