State Legislative Affairs Update

State Legislative Affairs Update Scott Ehlers

Access to The Champion archive is one of many exclusive member benefits. It’s normally restricted to just NACDL members. However, this content, and others like it, is available to everyone in order to educate the public on why criminal justice reform is a necessity.

Crime Labs

Texas: Final Report Issued on Houston Crime Lab Scandal

On June 13, the $5.3 million independent investigation of the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory and Property Room concluded with a 332-page final report. Findings and recommendations were issued based on material in the first five reports as well as a considerable amount of new material.

The independent investigator and former inspector general for the U.S. Department of Justice, Michael Bromwich, reviewed over 3,500 cases the crime lab processed from 1980-2004. Bromwich acknowledged the crime lab’s high quality work in the firearms, toxicology, and questioned documents sections. The problems and potential inaccuracy in the disciplines of serology and DNA analysis, however, were described as “significant and pervasive.”

The prosecution and the police agreed to review some 600 cases that Bromwich documented as possibly relying on faulty serology alone (“‘Troubling’ Cases Surface in Report on HPD Crime Lab,” Houston Chronicle, June 17, 2007).

The report also specifically points to major problems in DNA analysis in the cases of four death row inmates: Franklin Dwayne Alix, Juan Carlos Alvarez, Gilmar Alex Guevara, and Derrick Jackson.

According to Police Chief Harold Hurtt, the review being carried out by police and prosecutors is already underway. Bromwich’s investigation committee will continue to check for progress (“Hundreds More Cases in Doubt at HPD Lab,” Houston Chronicle, June 14, 2007).

The Final Report of the Independent Investigator for the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory and Property Room is online at

Death Penalty

North Carolina: De Facto Death Penalty Moratorium Continues

Executions have been effectively halted in North Carolina since January, when the North Carolina Medical Board adopted an ethics policy disallowing physicians from participating in executions. According to the adopted policy, if a physician does more than attend an execution, the board may take disciplinary action.

With the failure of an amendment offered to HB 818 by Rep. David Lewis, the de facto moratorium continues. The amendment would have made it illegal for the state medical board to punish doctors who participate in state-ordered executions.

Last year a federal trial court ruled that a physician must oversee an execution to ensure the U.S. Constitution’s bar on cruel and unusual punishment is upheld (“Death Penalty Amendment Stalls Medical Board Changes,” NC Medical Society Bulletin, June 15, 2007). The Council of State (a nine-member panel of top statewide elected officials) approved prison officials’ new execution procedures on February 6, which requires a physician not only be present but also monitor the inmate’s “essential body functions.” (“Doctor Details Execution Procedure,” The News & Observer, May 22, 2007) However, the conflict between the positions of the Council of State and the North Carolina Medical Board has not been rectified.

Continue reading below

Innocence-Related Reforms

California: Eyewitness Identification, False Confession, Jailhouse Informant Bills Introduced

On June 26, three bills were passed by the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee to reduce the most common causes of wrongful convictions: mistaken eyewitness identifications, false confessions, and false information provided by jailhouse informants. SB 511 would require electronic recording of police interrogations in homicide cases and other serious felonies. Corroboration of testimony from jailhouse informants would be required under SB 609. And SB 756 calls for an appointed task force to create new guidelines aimed at increasing accuracy in eyewitness identification.

The bills will be considered next by the Appropriations Committee and, if passed, will be sent to the Assembly Floor. Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed similar bills last year, but “the legislation has been modified to address the governor’s concerns,” according to Gerald Uelmen, executive director of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice. The commission was created by the state Senate to review the causes of wrongful convictions. (“Three Wrongful Conviction Bills Advance,” Los Angeles Times, June 27, 2007)

Sentencing Reform

Nevada: New Laws Revitalize Sentencing Commission, Address Prison Overcrowding

Nevada’s Advisory Commission on Sentencing has not convened since 2000, but with the signing of AB 508 the state legislature breathed new life into the commission. Now called the Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice, the commission is required to meet by July 31, 2007, and subsequently every three months.

Over the next two years, the commission is charged with reviewing Nevada’s sentencing rules, including the harsh sentencing laws passed in 1995. The commission is tasked with evaluating the Department of Corrections and the State Board of Parole Commissioners, as well as considering whether an advisory or oversight board could and should be established. Recommendations made by the commission will be presented during the 2009 legislative session.

Continue reading below

Featured Products

The bill also altered the makeup of the commission and provides it with subpoena powers it did not have previously.

A related bill passed into law, AB 510, included provisions to give the commission more duties, as well as measures to address prison overcrowding. The good-time credits offered to Nevada offenders were doubled, making some inmates eligible for parole sooner. Good-time credits are offered for completing educational and drug-treatment programs. The bill will apply retroactively for some nonviolent offenders. AB 510 also increases the power of judges with regard to enhancement penalties.

Sex Offenders

Texas: Capital Punishment for Second Offense Sex Crimes

Gov. Rick Perry signed the Texas version of “Jessica’s Law” (HB 8) on June 15, and with that Texas joined Florida, Louisiana, Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Georgia1 to become the seventh state to allow the death penalty for certain sex crimes, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The bill makes capital punishment an option in second offense cases involving the rape of a child. The Houston Chronicle reported that a death sentence may also be sought on the second offense if the victim is younger than 14 and the crime “involves the use of a deadly weapon, alcohol or drugs, death threats, bodily injury, kidnapping or gang rape.” (“‘Jessica’s Law’ Bill Heads to Governor’s Desk,” Houston Chronicle, May 19, 2007)

A first conviction for either crime previously mentioned comes with a mandatory 25-year minimum sentence. The bill also created a new offense – continuous sexual abuse of a child (Sec. 21.02). This new charge is meant to target habitual offenders; a second conviction also bears the mandatory 25-year minimum sentence.

The law takes effect in September.

Thanks to NACDL intern Katie Kuhn for assisting with these articles.



  1. In 2006, Georgia's legislature removed its general capital rape statute, but retained the rape of a minor as a capital crime. See