Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Indigent defense, child victims up for discussion in House, Senate tomorrow

Tomorrow will be Indigent Defense Day at the Texas capitol, it appears.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee will meet at 9 a.m. to discuss two interim charges:
Interim Charge 3
Review the performance of the Fair Defense Act and the Task Force on Indigent Defense. Study key outcomes of the law, including: appointment rates in felony and misdemeanor cases; state and county indigent defense expenditures; attorney caseloads; attorney compensation; access to investigators and experts; and overall quality of counsel for the indigent. Examine the Task Force on Indigent Defense's effectiveness in monitoring and enforcing standards and design strategies to improve the delivery of services for indigent defense, including timing of the appointment of counsel, the use of the appointment wheel and the monitoring of workloads and performance of attorneys.

Interim Charge 10
Evaluate the usage of current Texas practices for facilitating the fair and accurate courtroom testimony of children and reducing the trauma associated with testifying, particularly for children who are victims of sexual abuse. Specifically consider recent efforts and trends across the nation to develop best practices, including "court orientation" programs, and ensure that courtrooms are more child friendly and accommodating for young victims to reduce the trauma associated with testifying in court while ensuring that fair and accurate information is solicited from the child as a witness.
See testimony (pdf) from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition on the indigent defense charge.

Meanwhile, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee will meet at 10 a.m. to discuss their second interim charge: To "Study how the state presently supports the establishment and maintenance of public defender offices." I'd expect to see some crossover among witnesses at the two hearings. See testimony (pdf) from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition to House Criminal Jurisprudence.

While indigent defense will get a lot of focus, I'm also interested in the Senate committee's interim charge number 10 regarding child testimony. The charge seems generally aimed at making it easier for child victims to testify, but on the question of "ensuring that fair and accurate information is solicited from the child," given the number of false eyewitness identifications seen throughout the state, perhaps it would behoove the Legislature to consider requiring corroboration in alleged stranger-rape cases where the victim didn't previously know the defendant (which is a small minority of sex-assault cases). Right now, child victims in sex assault cases don't require corroboration to get a conviction, which is how we get situations like with Ricardo Rachell, where two boys falsely accused him despite the fact that his face was terribly disfigured and the real perpetrator - later identified through DNA - was not. I don't want child witnesses to be traumatized by the judicial process, but neither do I want them accusing the wrong person when their testimony alone is legally sufficient to convict.


Anonymous said...

It used to be that way. You had to have an additional witness to claim crimes such as rape against another. not today though. Anyone that decides this is a good day to make some money can walk into a police department and claim rape without issue. Damn shame, but that is the way things go.

Until we get a fair and open court systems to things such as rape, and stop relying on the practice of believing the victim 100%, we will continue to see innocent people put in jail where there are other possible criminal elements that should be on trial.

Anonymous said...

And just how many child sex offenses are "stranger rape" cases, Grits? Care to venture a guess?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

No, 1:39, I would not care to guess. What would be the point? Data isn't about opinions, so I'd refer you to the source cited here suggesting 93% of sex-assault victims knew their attackers. And here's some data to ponder on stranger kidnappings of children vs incidents where the child knew the abductor.

Anonymous said...

Exactly. And that kind of begs the question: Why do you want to create some new corroboration rule for child victims, where instances of sexual abuse allegations against strangers are so statistically remote. You're always so critical of victims' advocates overdramatizing tragedies in order to support the legislative creation of new offenses, and yet here you are using the Rachell case (a statistical aberration) to advance some new corroboration rule for child victims. Seems a little hypocritical (and unnecessary) if you ask me.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Why do you want to create some new corroboration rule for child victims, where instances of sexual abuse allegations against strangers are so statistically remote."

Easy: Because those are exactly the types of cases which have been resulting in DNA exonerations. It's a small subset of cases, it's where the problem mainly lies (people don't misidentify a relative who abused them for years), so why not enact a limited corroboration requirement under those circumstances? It's not something that would impact many cases but would reduce false convictions significantly.

If it won't affect many cases, and you know it, why would you mind?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Also, what makes you think the Rachell case was a statistical aberration?

Anonymous said...

Because if the number or child vs. stranger sexual abuse claims is already so infinitesimal, it would stand to reason that the number of false identfications in these cases is even more remote. Surely in some of those very rare cases, the child actually does get it right.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Sure, 3:55, and in those cases there is likely additional evidence.

False convictions happen in clusters surrounding specific types of bad evidence: Bad eye ids, bad forensics, etc.. What's more, the arson statute is among the broadest in the penal code so it's relatively easy to secure convictions, even false ones.

Your comments seem to ignore that only a small minority of cases convict innocent people. Nobody (at least not me) ever claimed we're talking about the majority of cases. If the overall false conviction rate were just .75% (the estimate from a DA once cited by Antonin Scalia) that's 1,200 innocent people in Texas prisons, and there's reason to believe the number may be higher.