Our Work

The story of our work is most dramatically represented by the exonerations we produce. Nothing matters more than reuniting families torn apart by injustice. Our effort to reunite loved ones is illustrated through our case review process, which we describe in detail below. We also try to take what we learn from wrongful convictions and help make the system better. For that, we work hard to earn and maintain a seat at the table with concerned, thoughtful stakeholders who share our desire to reduce the frequency of wrongful convictions.

Exonerations

Support from the state of Texas, the U.S. Department of Justice, individual donors and private foundations have helped us reunite 16 Texas citizens with their families.


Exonerations by Innocence Texas Board Members (in private practice).

Gary Udashen | 5

  • Hilliard Fields
  • Morris Jones
  • Patrick Montgomery
  • Stephen Lynn Russell
  • Stephen Craig Thompson

Walter Reaves | 2

  • Calvin Washington
  • Joe Sidney Williams

 

 

The Case Review Process

Our work is time consuming and tedious. The glamor, glory and outright fun of an exoneration happens only at the end of what can be a very long road. We explain the process here in great detail so you know what's involved and can understand why your support is so urgently needed and so greatly appreciated.

Stage 1 starts with the initial contact, usually a letter. If the letter is unrelated to a claim of actual innocence, the matter is closed. If the letter passes the initial eligibility screen, we will send a detailed questionnaire to get a more comprehensive understanding of the case. When the questionnaire comes back, we review it carefully. Sometimes, you may know you're onto something right away (for example, where DNA testing could prove innocence). Other times, you're just asking if it's possible that the person could be innocent. As long as that door stays open, we continue.

Stage 2 is the "desktop/paper" review and the field investigation. Every known piece of information related to the case is gathered.

  • Trial transcript
  • Appeals documents
  • Police file
  • District Attorney file
  • Media coverage file
  • Any/all other files/documents that may help shed light on the case
     

There are two challenges during this stage. One, some records can be very hard to get. Criminal justice agencies will often put up a fight just to get the records. This, of course, causes painful delays in conducting a proper review. Second, even if we get access to records, it can cost a fair chunk. And we HAVE to have the records. This is a critical area where your investment really, really helps.

A thorough case review will:

  • Scan and organize the entire file, including a timeline
  • Read the file
  • Feed what you learn into a case theory (how this person could be innocent) memo
  • Add the investigation plan
  • Do what is on the investigation plan
  • Add that to the theory memo
  • Look at the timeline again
  • Add what you find to the theory memo
     

As you can see, we sort of go around the block several times. What didn't turn up on the second go around may well turn up on the tenth go around. In an exoneration case, at some point, one or more newly discovered facts that prove innocence will be uncovered. Once we have enough "ammunition" that we are confident will allow us to prevail in court, we proceed to litigation.

Stage 3 launches the legal effort toward the exoneration. In Texas there are different routes depending on the specifics of the case. If we want a DNA test, we file under the statute that governs that approach. If we're alleging flawed science as wrongful conviction culprit, there is a statute the governs obtaining relief on those grounds. And there is the traditional "habeas" petition, where we introduce any sort of new evidence we believe is sufficient to overturn the conviction.

In each case, however, the case is taken back to the original trial court. If all goes well, we are granted a hearing to show our work. After that, the judge overturns (or "vacates") the conviction along with a judicial finding of actual innocence (or other/additional grounds). The district attorney will then typically drop all charges. Our client comes home and then files for state compensation.

Rarely, however is it as "easy" as described above. Each case features its own ups and downs, high points and low points. But in the end, with persistence, justice prevails and a wrong is made right.

Reform Initiatives

In reviewing cases, we learn a lot about how the system works (or doesn't). We bring this knowledge into a broader statewide criminal justice conversation. Many of these discussions lead to the adoption of new best practices by the courts, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and law enforcement. This can take the form of statutory and/or policy reforms. We describe here some of the collaborative efforts in which we have participated and those efforts in which we continue to collaborate.

Texas Forensic Science Commission (Ongoing)
The Texas Legislature created the Texas Forensic Science Commission in 2005 to address concerns about the integrity and reliability of forensic science in Texas courts. The concerns emanated in part from problems at the Houston Police Department’s (“HPD”) crime lab in the early 2000’s. Serious deficiencies were found in many areas of forensic analysis at the HPD lab, including the handling, labeling, storing and examination of evidence. Innocence Texas collaborates with the Innocence Project in New York City on forensic science issues related to wrongful convictions. These include microscopic hair analysis, bite mark analysis, DNA mixture analysis, arson, and serology.

Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission (2016)
The Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission (TCERC) exists under (but independent of) the Texas Judicial Council. It is also administratively attached to the Office of Court Administration (OCA). TCERC is a study commission charged with reviewing "cases in this state in which an innocent defendant was convicted and then, on or after January 1, 2010, was exonerated" to identify the main causes of those convictions and make recommendations to prevent such tragedies from reoccurring in the future. The findings and recommendations were submitted on December 1, 2016. TCERC was made up of 11 members, including four legislators, a gubernatorial appointee, representatives of various criminal justice government bodies and stakeholder organizations, and an appointment from the chair of the Texas Judicial Council. Innocence Texas was an advisory member of the TCERC and actively participated in its work.

Statewide Review of Arson Cases (2011-2013)
Innocence Texas collaborated with the State Fire Marshall's Office and the Forensic Science Commission to conduct a statewide review of arson cases. The objective was to identify any convictions that were based solely or primarily on flawed science. Innocence Texas contacted 1,085 defendants in arson cases who were still incarcerated or who had been recently released. From an initial round of responses, Innocence Texas attorneys, with the help of university students, screened the number of cases needing a closer look down to 33 and then was narrowed further. A select number of cases have re-entered the legal process seeking exonerations

Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions (2009)
The Texas Legislature established the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions during the 81st Legislative Session of 2009. The Advisory Panel was named after Innocence Texas client Timothy Cole, the first Texan to be posthumously exonerated of a crime through DNA testing.

The Advisory Panel was directed to advise the the Task Force on Indigent Defense in the preparation of a study regarding the causes of wrongful convictions and make recommendations to prevent future wrongful convictions. The Advisory Panel met formally on four occasions and also held a number of subcommittee meetings throughout the year. The Advisory Panel submitted its report and research to the Commission (Task Force) for publication and distribution.

The Advisory Panel specifically addressed eyewitness identification procedures, the recording of custodial interrogations, open discovery policies, post-conviction procedures, and the feasibility of creating an innocence commission to investigate wrongful convictions. In total, the Advisory Panel made 11 specific recommendations for reform. Pursuant to HB 498, a report and recommendations were presented to the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Speaker of the House, and standing committees with members on the Advisory Panel.