Top Texas Judge: We Have Not Achieved Justice ‘If Innocent People Are Rotting In Prison’

The Chief Justice of the Texas State Supreme Court warned during his biannual address to the state Legislature this week that “if innocent people are rotting in prison for crimes they did not commit, we certainly have not achieved justice for all.” Justice Wallace Jefferson (R) repeated his plea that the state create a commission to address wrongful convictions, noting that DNA has exonerated more convictions in Texas than anywhere else:

Michael Morton’s recent exoneration epitomizes the need to address the issue of wrongful convictions in Texas. He spent 25 years in prison, convicted of murdering his wife, until DNA evidence confirmed his innocence.

In the last 25 years, 117 Texans have been exonerated. Forty-seven were cleared based on DNA testing, more than any other state. Wrongful convictions leave our citizens vulnerable, as actual perpetrators remain free. And they leave us with the distinct impression that we today suffer from a systemic deficit in our collective approach to the way we decide how to administer criminal justice. As in years past, I continue to recommend the creation of a commission to investigate each instance of exoneration, to assess the likelihood of wrongful convictions in future cases, and to establish statewide reforms.

Texas is not only known for its high rate of wrongful convictions; it is also known for executing far more individuals than any other state. This is a dangerous combination that risks condemning those wrongly convicted to the most irreversible sentence. Morton’s murder conviction was one of several egregious examples of wrongful convictions in Texas. In his case, prosecutors seized on a note Morton’s wife left for him that expressed tactful frustration over a sexual encounter as evidence that Morton was a suspect, and bolstered that suspicion with the lack of evidence of a break-in or other alternative cause. Slate’s Emily Bazelon explains how prosecutor “tunnel vision” leads to reinforced beliefs about a suspect where rigorous procedures are not put in place for investigation or alternative explanations.

During remarks that touched on many of the major justice issues of our time, Jefferson also called for an end to the school-to-prison pipeline, and much greater commitment to providing resources to both criminal and civil defendants. “My presentation today is not a State of the Judiciary,” he said. “It is a call to arms.”