While some appellate attorneys are applauding Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos’ establishment of a Post Conviction Review Section, whose work led to the freedom of two wrongfully convicted men in the past week, Texas law continues to make it difficult for inmates appealing convictions to be heard in court. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals remains unfriendly to innocence claims, said Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel for The Innocence Project of Texas.
“I’m convinced there are thousands of people in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that are innocent and need to get out,” Blackburn said. “But getting them out is very, very difficult.”
Lykos broke ranks with other district attorneys in Texas when she took office in January 2009 by establishing a team dedicated to reviewing cases in which people may have been wrongfully convicted – a move that has changed Harris County’s judicial climate, Blackburn said. The Dallas County District Attorney’s Office has a similar division focused on reviewing possible wrongful convictions in their jurisdiction.
“Harris County was light-years behind everybody else – now it’s light-years ahead of everyone else,” Blackburn said. “I think (Lykos) has brought about a sea change in attitude and perspective for that office. I wish every DA in the state would do what she has proven herself capable of doing in these cases. It’s something that requires a lot of moral authority and a lot of courage.
“We’re still facing counties that will resist the ideas of even DNA tests,” Blackburn said. “That’s crazy to me. If you’ve got biological evidence, why not test it?”
First, kudos to Pat Lykos for establishing that Post Conviction Review Section, which was long overdue here. It’s a big step forward. With the two largest counties in the state now setting that kind of example, one would hope that there will be pressure on others to follow suit. It won’t be quick and it won’t be easy, and most likely it will take a combination of legislative action and reform-minded candidates ousting recalcitrant incumbents for real progress to be made, but I believe that eventually this will be the standard, and the resistance that Blackburn speaks of will be rightly seen as obsolete.