Lindsay Stafford Mader 2016-05-03 00:30:32
The Texas Young Lawyers Association launches a new project to decrease wrongful convictions. The 2015 Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer and the first season of the podcast Serial in 2014 enthralled millions of Americans with concern for potentially wrongful convictions. Texans, however, were deeply aware of the issue before these pop culture sensations, having witnessed the exonerations of Anthony Graves and Christopher Scott in 2010, followed a year later by Michael Morton, who served almost 25 years for his wife’s murder that DNA evidence eventually proved he did not commit. Members of the Texas Young Lawyers Association have been paying attention just like the rest of us. So when the National Registry of Exonerations recently reported that Texas had more exonerations than anywhere else in the country for the third consecutive year, TYLA was already hard at work with an idea that would hopefully help prevent wrongful convictions from ever taking place. The project, And Justice for All: Preventing Wrongful Convictions Through Education, launched April 1. It is available at tylajusticeforall.com. “People’s eyes have been opened lately to a tragedy that has gone unnoticed for many years,” said TYLA President C. Barrett Thomas, who is a defense attorney. “Wrongful convictions do occur, and they occur at a frequency that many simply don’t want to believe.” When Thomas, a former police officer and prosecutor, became TYLA president in June 2015, he knew he wanted to use his term to address some of the problems within the criminal justice system. Funded by a $45,000 grant from the Texas Bar Foundation, TYLA created And Justice for All, which consists of video interviews and other online resources that educate the legal community on the actions and behaviors that can put the wrong people behind bars and let the guilty go free. “Nobody gets into the practice of criminal law wanting to participate in a case that sends an innocent person to prison,” Thomas said. “That is what makes this project so important. It can be universally accepted by prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the community at large. Through education, we can better our system to ensure that justice is truly done.” The interactive website, created by Dallas design agency Culture Farm, is structured to make users feel like they are reviewing a criminal case file, and its somber theme imparts the seriousness of the topic. From the homepage, you can click on an exoneree’s mug shot, read his or her biographical information and case overview, analyze a timeline of significant events, and watch a poignant video interview with the person. The website also provides other videos and textual information discussing the reasons for wrongful convictions— including false confessions, tunnel vision, forensic mistakes, inadequate defense, prosecutorial misconduct, and eyewitness error—and then offers practical tips on avoiding each of these mistakes, as well as helpful outside resources and articles for additional research. And Justice for All seeks to be balanced in representing the perspectives and concerns of all attorneys involved with a criminal case—and not placing blame. “I believe that the project has done an incredible job of keeping a measured tone,” said TYLA District 21 Director Andrew Dornburg, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor who worked on the initiative. “It easily could have gone one way or the other—such as being too deferential to prosecutors or too willing to portray police and DAs as callous and uncaring—but the people working on this project have gone out of their way to keep it fair.” TYLA District 7 Director Rachel Grove, who is an assistant district attorney for Jefferson County, said that And Justice For All reminds prosecutors that their professional purpose is not merely to get convictions. “We are responsible for holding those who violate the law accountable,” Grove said. “We must also prevent the criminal justice system from steamrolling over innocent people.” The most engaging feature of And Justice for All is the documentary-style interviews with prosecutors, defense attorneys, exonerees— including Morton and Christopher Scott—innocence project leaders, and more. Aaron Burke, the TYLA director who spearheaded the project, said they asked the interview subjects to divulge what they think are the top reasons for wrongful convictions as well as what attorneys can do to decrease the frequency. “We could always do another article that discusses wrongful convictions, but it seemed so much more compelling to hear it from the people who have lived it, have experienced it their whole lives,” Burke said. “Each person has their own beliefs about what can address this. Some of it’s very practical and some of it’s systemic.” TYLA is hoping to present the project live in locations around the state and is also seeking accreditation for minimum continuing legal education to increase the number of attorneys who participate. “We hope this project is far-reaching and makes a profound impact on hundreds of people,” TYLA President Thomas said. “But if we see just one prevented wrongful conviction, we feel it was worth it.” The Face of Justice. These exonerees and attorneys gave recorded interviews for TYLA’s And Justice For All project (above, clockwise): Lyndon Bittle, a civil litigator who helped secure the release of Manuel Velez, a construction worker from Brownsville who was sentenced to death; Michael Morton, a Williamson County man who was exonerated in 2011 after DNA evidence proved that he did not murder his wife; Christopher Scott, a Dallas man who was exonerated in 2010 after spending almost 13 years in prison for murder; Neil Burger, a civil litigator who worked on Bittle’s team to get Velez out of prison; and Tim Cole, a criminal defense lawyer and former district attorney.
Published by State Bar of Texas. View All Articles.
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