- Associated Press - Monday, February 9, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - A Texas lawmaker has proposed legislation intended to fix problems created by a 2011 law he authored that unintentionally made crime-scene DNA testing difficult for convicts.

“There were a few things that we had neglected to really verify,” said Nina Morrison, senior staff attorney for the New York-based Innocence Project, who helped Democratic Sen. Rodney Ellis write both the 2011 bill and the new proposal. “It could have been clearer.”

Ellis detailed his new bill at a press conference Monday with the Innocence Project and several former inmates who have been exonerated, including Michael Morton, who was imprisoned for 24 years for a murder he didn’t commit before DNA testing cleared him.

The measure would clarify the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, which currently states that a convicted person may request testing of “evidence containing biological material.” The change would permit testing on evidence that is reasonably likely to contain biological material, including invisible items such as skin cells and sweat.

Last year, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals narrowly interpreted the code in a ruling on a death row inmate’s request for DNA testing. Larry Ray Swearingen had asked the court to test a piece of pantyhose used to strangle Melissa Trotter in 1998.

“All evidence to be tested must first be proven to contain biological material,” wrote Justice Paul Womack in the majority opinion.

Swearingen’s request was denied because he hadn’t proven that there was DNA on the pantyhose.

“As it stands now, we have something of a Catch-22 in Texas,” Morton said. “You can’t prove what you don’t have.”

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EDUCATION FUNDING

The Senate Finance Committee spent hours Monday hearing testimony from educational agencies as it hammers out its version of the 2016-2017 state budget - including a presentation from Education Commissioner Michael Williams. There was little indication, however, on whether the committee would be supportive of a final budget that boosts education funding beyond simply covering the cost of rising classroom enrollment caused by Texas’ booming population.

While a draft budget compiled by the House includes more funding for education, the Senate version would use those same dollars for tax cuts. How both chambers will reconcile that remains unclear.

Some on the committee suggested that rising property values in many areas of the state had eased tight budgets for school districts, which derive much of their funding from property taxes because Texas has no state income tax. That has prompted calls for property tax cuts.

Instead of debating that issue, though, members questioned whether public education funding had been restored to pre-2011 levels. That’s when the Legislature cut $5.4 billion from base classroom funding and educational grant programs for things like pre-kindergarten programs. That move prompted more than 600 school districts statewide to sue, arguing that funding was no longer adequate and also unfairly distributed between rich and poor areas of the state.

In 2013, lawmakers restored about $3.4 billion, mostly to base education funding. Much of Monday’s discussion focused on whether the funding increases two years ago, coupled with increases in property tax revenues, meant educational base-funding had reached 2011 levels.

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STATE OF THE JUDICIARY SCHEDULED

Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht will present the State of the Judiciary in a joint session of the Legislature on Feb. 18.

During the biennial event, justices typically report on how accessible the courts are for Texans. This will be the first event under Hecht’s purview - he was appointed to the position by former Gov. Rick Perry in Oct. 2013, when former chief justice Wallace Jefferson stepped down from the state’s highest civil court.

Hecht was first elected to the court in 1988, and won his election to keep the top court seat last year. A strong supporter of legal aid for veterans, Hecht recently asked the Senate Finance Committee for $4 million to fund the Justice for Veterans Initiative, a joint venture between the court and the Texas Veterans Commission.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY

“We are still our brother’s keeper, whether they’re here or in the air-conditioned comfort of the statehouse, or whether they are still languishing in the un-air-conditioned heat of the big house,” Cory Session, brother of Timothy Cole, who was posthumously exonerated after dying in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Session was speaking at a press conference for a new DNA testing bill.

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