Justice Department provides $250,000 grant to check for wrongful Harris County convictions
Once a place known for its lock-em-up brand of Texas justice, Harris County is now getting a historic shot at ferreting out bad convictions and releasing wrongfully jailed prisoners, thanks to a $250,000 “Second Look” grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The influx of federal money to re-examine old cases will fund a two-year collaborative effort between the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, the Innocence Project of Texas and the Anthony Graves Foundation, prosecutors announced Tuesday.
“This is a new day in terms of criminal justice reform in the city of Houston,” said Graves, a Texas death row exoneree. “Hopefully this’ll be the model to carry around to the rest of the state and the country.”
District Attorney Kim Ogg concurred, praising the unusual alliance.
“This collaboration is historic and a step toward ensuring fairness and transparency in our justice system,” she said in a statement.
The funding will allow for a review of roughly 300 cases with claims of actual innocence where DNA testing was denied by courts, and will determine if the case was eligible for testing, according to Ogg. The 2001 law, known as Chapter 64 for its designation in Texas’s Code of Criminal Procedure, allows a convicted person to request testing of forensic evidence gathered in their case, or more technologically advanced testing than was previously done.
The money won’t be used to examine death row cases, officials said, and it’ll zero in on convictions between the year the law changed and 2008.
Getting out of prison under the 2001 law is a two-step process. First: get the DNA testing. Then: file an appeal. The whole process can take years, but the new money could make it all move along more quickly for dozens of Texas prisoners.
“It’s both precedent setting and practically invaluable,” said defense lawyer Patrick McCann, who is on the Graves Foundation board of directors. “If you’re sitting in a 5-by-8 cell, there’s no better news than hearing this.”
The Innocence Project got the ball rolling earlier in the year when they approached Harris County prosecutors with the idea, according to Conviction Integrity Division Chief Gerald Doyle. Prosecutors agreed, and the parties involved brought on Graves for a three-way partnership.
“We’ll be sharing a database and doing a collaborative review,” Doyle said, “but we’re all equal partners and we have our separate role with the goal of finding wrongful convictions.”
Though the DNA legislation opened new doors for the wrongfully convicted when it passed 17 years ago, it came with practical limitations, according to McCann.
“First,” he said, “the labs are hopelessly backlogged - so it’s a matter of capacity.”
Second, there’s a dearth of qualified lawyers with the time to tackle Chapter 64 cases quickly. And, third, there’s the problem of tracking down old pieces of evidence.
The grant won’t boost funding to labs, but it will help lawyers file for testing more quickly. Also, the added resources could make it easier for qualified attorneys to take on these sorts of claims - and track down the requisite evidence - on top of their existing workloads.
“Perry Mason had an investigator on his staff,” McCann said. “The average Joe defense lawyer doesn’t have that, so if you’ve got the services of the district attorney’s office and a bunch of motivated paralegals and interns and law students at a nonprofit helping you, then your life just got so much easier.”
But, Graves cautioned, $250,000 isn’t enough to work through all the DNA convictions in the county - and it may not even be enough to finish the roughly 300 prosecutors have already earmarked for review.
“I don’t want people thinking that $250,000 is going to change the world,” Graves said. “At the end of the day, this funding is just the beginning.”