A bill requiring that DNA evidence be tested prior to trial in capital cases is headed to the full Senate after quickly passing out of that chamber’s criminal justice committee.
“This legislation was really the brainchild of Attorney General Greg Abbott,” Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said Tuesday during his brief introduction to his bill, SB 1292. While no one testified for or against the bill in the sparsely populated committee room Tuesday, at a March 19 press conference about the bill featuring Abbott, Ellis, and Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, Ellis said that SB 1292 represents a “step towards a more fair, reliable, and just criminal justice system in Texas.”
SB 1292 will “ensure that we avoid the possibility of the wrong person serving years on death row and the far worst specter of putting to death an innocent person,” Ellis, who chairs the national Innocence Project, said. “We’ve already dodged this very bullet a couple of times thanks to advocates for people who have been wrongfully convicted,” Ellis said, noting that of the 303 people who have been exonerated through post conviction DNA tests in Texas, 18 of those people spent time on death row.
Abbott was wholehearted in his support of the bill at the press conference. “Texans may disagree about the death penalty, but one thing all Texans can and should agree upon is that no innocent person should be executed in Texas,” he said. SB 1292 will “make valid cases more solid and will eliminate invalid cases.”
Pre-trial DNA testing is needed “We shouldn’t live with suspense. The family of the victims shouldn’t have to go through this time after time after time.”
Texas has been at the center of the innocence debate in recent years, with the cases of Michael Morton, Anthony Graves, and Cameron Todd Willingham garnering national attention. Testing at the early stages, Abbott said, is a way “to gain certainty in our system.” If pre-trial DNA testing had been conducted in the case of death row inmate Hank Skinner, who has been on death row since 1995 when he was convicted of the murder of his live-in girlfriend and her two adult sons, two decades of testing—still underway—could have been avoided, Abbott said.
Ellis maintained that he supports the death penalty, but he wants to be sure that mistakes don’t happen. “It’s a government program—and nobody ever accuses the government of always getting it right in any other sphere.”
The bill was voted out of committee in a 4 – 0 vote and added to the local and consent calendar.