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A Kinder, Gentler Texas?

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Is Texas no longer a tough-on-crime, hand ‘em high state?

A recent piece in Time Magazine says maybe so.

The story recounts the reforms the Legislature passed last spring following the Tim Cole tragedy. Cole, as most of you will remember, was a Lubbock man wrongly convicted of raping a Texas Tech student in 1985. Cole was exonerated last year, but not before he died in prison in 1999 from complications of asthma.

Moved by Cole’s story, the Lege passed the Tim Cole act that substantially increased compensation for people who are wrongly convicted and later exonerated. Lawmakers also raised funding for indigent defense.

Time writes:

The two new laws are now being implemented, and their backers hope they will mitigate the state’s hang-’em-high image.”

Grits is glad to see these welcome reforms receive national attention, but also points out that Texas hasn’t exactly become kinder and gentler on criminal justice.

I agree: the Time story gives the Legislature far too much credit.

Let’s remember that the Legislature didn’t pass the one bill that — had it been in place 25 years ago — might have saved Tim Cole.

His conviction was based largely on the victim’s ID of him as the attacker. A rigged police lineup led the victim to wrongly identify Cole. Witness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions. (The Innocence Project explains why here.)

Last session, lawmakers failed to pass a bill — Senate Bill 117 — that would have required police agencies around the state to adopt best practices for photo and in-person lineups. The bill would have made witness misidentifications less frequent.

Instead, some police departments in Texas today are still using the kind of abhorrent lineup procedures that put Cole in prison.

In that sense, the Legislature’s reaction to the Tim Cole case isn’t a sign of Texas’ kinder, gentler approach to criminal justice.

Rather, the Lege’s failure to pass police lineup reforms shows how far Texas has yet to go.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.