The hearing room was packed for yesterday’s Senate Committee on Criminal Justice hearing, and it wasn’t difficult to figure out why. The committee heard one of the most high-profile and controversial bills of the session: a measure to allow concealed weapons on college campuses. The committee needed an overflow room to accommodate all the people who wanted to speak, and testimony lasted well into the evening.
But it was another measure the committee heard—Senate Bill 122 by Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston)—that might have a more profound impact.
The bill would expand access to post-conviction DNA testing for inmates who contend they were wrongly convicted. The committee spent only a few minutes on the bill, and it received little fanfare. But if you listened to the testimony, it was clear why this legislation is so important.
Charles Chatman was imprisoned 27 years for a crime he didn’t commit. He was wrongly convicted of rape in 1981. He wasn’t released until 2008, after DNA tests proved his innocence. As Chatman told the committee, it took him seven years to finally obtain a DNA test. He said he began requesting DNA testing in 2001. He wrote letters to judges, prosecutors, the governor and many others requesting that someone—anyone—examine the biological evidence in his case. He was turned down every time. Often the response was a one-sentence rejection letter. It wasn’t until Chatman wrote district Judge John Creuzot in Dallas that he got access to the evidence that freed him.
Chatman was 20 years old when he went to prison. He got out at age 47. As bad as that seems, it could have been worse. “If Judge Creuzot hadn’t answered it, I’d still be locked up,” Chatman said.
Texas leads the nation in DNA exonerations—43 so far. There are almost certainly more innocent people in prison right now. Those are the people Ellis’ bill would help.
Texas has had post-conviction DNA testing since 2001. But, as Chatman’s story shows, some prisoners have trouble accessing the evidence.
The legislation clarifies prisoners’ rights to post-conviction DNA testing, and makes it harder for judges and prosecutors to reject requests out of hand. The bill states that a prisoner can access DNA if the evidence has never been tested or if new, more modern testing techniques have since been developed. The bill also requires law enforcement to compare the tested evidence with existing DNA databases to find the real perpetrator.
The DNA legislation was left pending in committee (so was the campus gun bill) but will likely soon head to the Senate floor. For those still in prison, the change can’t come soon enough.