There are two news articles today involving the Board of Pardons and Paroles. One involves a new law passed by Texas legislators in this year's legislative session; the second, a BPP practice under fire. The second story may give even more concern for application of the new law.
Today's Wall Street Journal reports, "Links to Sex Crimes to Follow Texas Suspects," by Ann Zimmerman. Here's an extended excerpt:
Desirée Wood gave up hope that the man who raped her 20 years ago in Dallas would ever be caught and sentenced for the crime. Now, she says, she has reason to believe her attacker might see some form of justice, after all.
On Tuesday, a law takes effect in Texas that lets prosecutors and parole boards for the first time see DNA evidence that links a suspect to an old sexual assault, even though the statute of limitations has expired on the case and the suspect was never tried. Previously, there would be no record linking the suspect to the old crime.
Supporters of the law, the first of its kind in the country, hope it means that suspects in those old cases will face more-vigorous prosecutions and sterner parole boards should they find themselves in trouble with the law again. Opponents say the law could rob suspects of due-process rights.
The change attempts to close a gap created by improved technology and an outdated law. Advances in genetic testing have enabled prosecutors to access even the smallest DNA samples to identify suspects in old criminal cases. But even though the Texas Legislature in 2001 removed the state's five-year statute of limitations on sexual-assault charges, the change doesn't apply to alleged assaults before 2001.
In Ms. Wood's case, the DNA evidence collected after her rape 20 years ago was processed by the Dallas Police Department in 2008 as part of its novel Sexual Assault Cold Case Program, which focuses on cases too old to prosecute.
The results of the DNA test were fed into a national crime database and matched the profile of a Louisiana man who has been in and out of prison for burglary and other small offenses. He has denied to police that he raped Ms. Wood, but under the new law, the DNA results will be attached to his criminal file maintained by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
"The next time he gets in trouble for petty things, the prosecutors will see this guy is a bigger threat," said Ms. Wood, who said she struggled for years after the attack with anger issues and nightmares.
The new Texas law was conceived and championed by a small group of rape survivors who had joined a Dallas Police Department support group launched as part of the city's cold-case project. Reopening old cases also can reopen emotional wounds, and though the women were grateful the police were trying to identify their attackers, for many that wasn't enough.
"The women wanted the men to be held accountable in some way," said Sgt. Patrick Welsh, who runs the department's sexual-assault unit and launched the cold-case program nine years ago.
The law has its critics. The American Civil Liberties Union is concerned that it could punish suspects without the benefit of due process. After objections from the ACLU, the proposed law was revised to allow only law-enforcement agencies to access DNA information linking someone to an old sexual assault. The law also allows suspects to petition for removal of the information from their files if they believe it has been wrongly included.
Mike Ward reports, "Court cases forcing change at Texas parole agency," in today's Austin American-Statesman.
U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks had heard enough. After several days of listening to attorneys for the State of Texas defend the state parole board's operations, he became exasperated by the testimony of a parole board lawyer.
"The lady is wrong. She is stating issues of the law that are wrong," he told the jury.
The rare display of judicial pique resulted in a mistrial after state lawyers objected that his remarks could have improperly influenced jurors. But Sparks had already made it clear that he had serious questions about whether parole board policies violate a prisoner's right to due process.
Sparks is not the first judge to make such findings. In three other cases in two years, Austin federal judges have questioned the legality of the state's policies for placing restrictions on parolees, particularly sex offenders, who face some of the strictest conditions on their parole. Across Texas, parole officials said, more than a dozen other lawsuits on the issue are pending.
The court cases have highlighted criticism of the parole board for not taking time to adequately review parole cases, for operating in secret, for not detecting errors in paperwork and for placing conditions on parolees that are not justified by the evidence. Although most of the cases so far have dealt with sex offenders, observers say that changing the rules for those cases could open the door to broader changes, including more openness.
Although most Texans probably find it hard to sympathize with red-tape travails of convicted felons, a growing chorus of former and current parole officials agree that systemic troubles that have nettled Texas' secretive system for decades seem to be coming to a head.
"This is all on a collision course," said Scott Medlock, director of the prisoner rights program for the Austin-based Texas Civil Rights Project. "Three federal judges and two appellate courts have told them the system has to change ... but the state's litigation strategy is that the (5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals) will bail them out. I don't think so."
For their part, state parole officials say the current process is constitutional.
"We have been advised by attorney after attorney after attorney that it is correct," said Rissie Owens, chairwoman of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.
Even so, some officials on both sides concede that some change appears to be coming.
Related articles are in the TX Board of Pardons and Paroles category index.