A Growing Awareness of Innocence
by Jay B. Van Story
March 6, 2005

Most of those who appeal to the Texas Innocence Network are exactly where they belong. So said Kevin McAlpine, a law student with the Texas Innocence Network at the University of Houston Law Center. "The vast majority of the cases we get and screen are rejected," said McAlpine. 

McAlpine is one of the law students at the network who has worked diligently on my case, since it first came to their attention in 2000. Jules Cabeen, Misty Barnett and Karen Hamilton are three others.

When my case was first submitted, it had to survive the close scrutiny of Hamilton, the gatekeeper at the Innocence Network. This is where the vast majority of cases are rejected. 

Hamilton is, of all things, a former prison guard, making her a particularly skeptical person when it comes to prisoners' claims of innocence. "There's not much I haven't seen," she said. "It does take a lot to convince me… When I first started this, I would have said 99.9 percent of these inmates' letters were full of it." She eventually came to see that about 5 percent of those seeking the network's assistance have valid claims of innocence. 

"We're not trying to get guilty people out of prison," Hamilton said. "We are trying to get innocent people out of prison. It does happen. Sometimes the system does not work."

"Every person deserves a fair trial and a fair appeal," said law student Misty Barnett. "It just doesn't always happen that way. We know people are in for crimes they didn't commit."

When the Texas Innocence Network started up at the University of Houston, there was open hostility from many in the legal profession, mainly prosecutors and judges. But now, after seeing that the network is legitimate, there has been a noticeable shift in attitude. An expansion of the network is underway.

The Center for Actual Innocence opened at the University of Texas Law School in 2003. Bill Allison, the president of the center, said, "No one wants to see an innocent person in prison... A prosecutor's duty is to see that justice is done."

Just recently, as if we were living in a parallel universe where fairness is a universal concern, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals began working in concert with the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and the Texas legislature in an effort to open branches of the Innocence Network at all major state universities in Texas. This represents a complete shift in thinking for many formerly recalcitrant officials.

In late December 2002, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Barbara Hervey argued in a dissenting opinion that if Texas started letting innocent people out of prison, there was no way of knowing what harm it might lead to. This was in a case where five of the nine judges ruled that a man should be freed from prison after the alleged child victim of sexual assault had admitted making the whole thing up.

Another dissenter in that case, Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, had previously opined in other cases that it is not the job of the courts to free innocent people who were wrongly convicted. You probably wouldn't be surprised to learn that Keller is a former prosecutor.

Fast forward two years: Judge Barbara Hervey said, "If an innocent person is in prison, the entire system has failed. We need to get them out." Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Mike Keasler said, "If you have one innocent person in the penitentiary, that is too many. I sure wouldn't want to be there. It has to be your worst nightmare."

Clearly, there has been a change of heart.

Law Professor David R. Dow, the Director of the Texas Innocence Network in Houston, estimates there are 7,500 innocent prisoners in Texas alone. "We've identified cases where they [the prosecutors] have made mistakes, and the consequences of their mistakes is pretty damn significant," he said.

Because of the huge backlog of cases that the Network in Houston has had to wade through for the last four years, the progress has been slow in my case. If they could have concentrated more on my case, I could have been freed years ago. It is a true blessing that a much larger Network is in the works. It will really help those who remain falsely imprisoned. When strong, convincing evidence of innocence is uncovered in a case, relief should come within days or weeks, not years.

Forward thinking officials are to be commended for acknowledging that there is a problem, and working together to do something about it. It is truly a positive step in the right direction. 

This article contains excerpts from "UH Network Offers Inmates Legal Remedy," Houston Chronicle, Dec. 26, 2002, and "State May Support Innocence Inquiries," Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Dec. 5, 2004.


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