Parker County Today September 2016 - Page 13

our law: COLUMN Understanding False Convictions in Texas By Mike Ware Executive Director, Innocence Project of Texas Mike Ware with Casandra Rivera How many people in Texas are convicted of crimes they did not commit? T Mike Ware is the Executive Director of the Innocence Project of Texas and is of counsel with Puls Haney Kaiser PLLC. For more information on the Innocence Project of Texas and ways you can be involved, please visit PA R K E R C O U N T Y T O D AY ideal that for every false conviction caused, another false conviction should be corrected. Again, the lowest projected error rate would yield 106 false convictions. The five-year average (2011-2015) for exonerations in Texas is 22. This results in a potential liberty gap of 84 individuals who every year will still be fighting for their freedom. To repeat, the occurrence of a false conviction can be highly infrequent and still impact a significant number of lives. Where does that lead us in addressing this problem? The nonprofit Innocence Project of Texas (IPTX) is waging its own fight to reduce the liberty gap and exonerate more victims of false convictions. In its first ten years, IPTX was instrumental in securing the freedom of 12 Texans who were falsely convicted. From my perspective as IPTX executive director and former director of the Dallas County District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU), I believe we’ve made a start but that’s all in finding and correcting false convictions in Texas. While finding ways to prevent false convictions is important, I see the exoneration as the “true north” of IPTX. The essence of what we do is to restore citizen liberty that was unfairly taken and reconnect families torn apart by injustice. IPTX is undertaking a major initiative to grow and strengthen the organization so that it can produce five to seven exonerations (or more) each year. We once believed that false convictions just didn’t happen. Now we know they do. And in Texas, the evidence indicates that there is much more work to be done. SEPTEMBER 2016 he exact answer is unknowable, but a reasonable estimate is possible. And by understanding the potential scope of false convictions, we can chart a more intelligent course in responding to these egregious outcomes in our criminal justice process. Before 1990, false convictions were widely seen as figments of our imagination. Since then, however, DNA testing has made quite clear that false convictions do happen. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 281 Texans have been exonerated (conviction overturned and charges dropped or retried and acquitted) since 1989. The starting point for understanding the scope of false convictions in Texas is taking note of how many people get convicted of felonies each year. In the most recent year for which Texas court data has been compiled, that number exceeds 108,000. To determine how widespread false convictions might be, we must apply an error rate estimate. Several scholarly studies in recent years have identified error rates between one half of one percent to over 10 percent. Let’s take a few examples using the lower end of that range. An error rate of one-half of one percent (that’s one in a thousand) would yield over 100 false convictions. Nudging the error rate up to just one percent (99% accurate) would yield over 1,000 false convictions. As you can see, with a large volume of convictions, even a very small error rate — or a very high accuracy rate — will create an uncomfortable number of false convictions. And remember, for every false conviction, the person who actually committed the crime is still on the loose, free to victimize other citizens. The final step in looking at the scope of false convictions in Texas is to examine the “liberty gap.” The liberty gap is the difference between the estimated errors created in a given year and the errors corrected (exonerations) in a given year. The liberty gap symbolizes the simple 11