AMARILLO, TX - The Skinner hearing is rare in this day and age because DNA testing is now commonplace in any criminal trial, and isn't likely to be brought to the table years later.
Texas exonerated more wrongfully convicted criminals last year than any state in the nation, but DNA evidence surprisingly isn't a big reason why. Of all the 133 wrongfully convicted people whose crimes were cleared in the history of Texas, 13 were released last year.
"Texas is in some ways the worst state in the union for criminal justice, and we certainly have been historically, but now we're one of the best states in the union in terms of reforming our system," Amarillo criminal defense attorney Jeff Blackburn said.
According to a report released Tuesday by the National Registry of Exonerations, Texas ranks third for the most behind New York and California. Some say that's not a ranking to be proud of because it means the state justice system locks the innocent behind bars but Blackburn, who has dedicated his career to clearing the names of the innocent through The Innocence Project of Texas, says he's proud of the progress.
"We have high numbers of exonerations and that's a good thing. It shows that we are doing something about the wrongfully convicted. Do I have any doubt that we have people stuffed up in prison that don't belong there, not at all. We do. But we actually have better laws than any state in the union to help get them out," he said.
Exonerations increased by 87 percent nationwide last year but the percentage based on DNA evidence dropped. Blackburn says that's a good thing. "In current cases of course DNA is routine, now what you see is defense lawyers trying to discredit DNA. Well good luck with that," he said.
Blackburn says new laws in Texas discrediting phony science used to convict criminals will mean more exonerations in the future. Progress, he says, for over-crowded prisons. "The take away from this ought to be well we're doing better in this state," he said. The report also lists in-efficient state-assigned defense lawyers as a top reason for the innocent ending up behind bars, and Blackburn agrees.