Brother of exonerated prisoner praises Perry’s criminal justice record

Cory Session's brother Tim Cole died in the middle of a 25-year prison sentence for a crime he didn't commit.

So it's somewthing of a surprise that Session, who serves a policy director for Texas' Innocence Project, has nothing but good things to say about Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Perry is known as a tough-on-crime governor who heartily supports the death penalty. He's presided over more executions than any other governor since the death penalty was reinstated 35 years ago. When a special commission began to look into evidence that Perry could have presided over the execution of an innocent man, the governor abruptly removed three of its members and appointed allies in their stead, effectively quashing the probe.

But Session says Perry's support of other criminal justice reforms overshadow his record on the death penalty.

"Governor Perry has done an exceptional job when it comes to criminal justice reform, more so than any other governor in Texas history," Session told The Lookout. "That's a record nobody can take away from him. His stance on the death penalty, well that's another thing. But we are very pleased with that record that he has."

Perry posthumously pardoned Cole after DNA evidence exonerated him and another inmate confessed to the sexual assault that produced Cole's conviction. Perry also signed legislation requiring police departments to develop policies around eyewitness identifications of suspects. (Cole was falsely identified after police showed a Polaroid photo of him to the victim, when all the other photos of suspects shown to her were in a different format. This is just one of many examples of investigative tactics that have lead to false identifications.)

Perry also signed into law the Tim Cole Exonerated Prisoner Act in 2009, which is the most generous compensation program for wrongly convicted men and women in the nation. When one exonerated man was denied compensation under the act due to a technicality, Perry worked to get a bill passed that provided him with the funds.

But despite this record, not everyone in the prison reform community is so happy to give Perry credit.

"He has not been an obstacle for us but he has also not been a key leader," says Ana Yáñez-Correa, director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

In 2005, Perry even vetoed a package of parole and sentencing reforms that he later signed when a similar bill crossed his desk in 2007. Those reforms--which promoted treatment instead of jail for nonviolent drug offenders and parole violators--allowed Perry to close a prison for the first time in the state's history this year. Yáñez-Correa says a bipartisan group of state lawmakers led by Republican Jerry Madden and Democrat John Whitmire deserve the credit.

She said the Tim Cole Act, which Perry was more involved in, was a no-brainer. "It's not a controversial issue--nobody wants to put someone to death who shouldn't be," she said. "Nobody wants to put somebody in prison who is innocent."

Kathryn Kase, the director of the Texas Defender Service, which provides legal help to Death Row prisoners, points out that Perry has refrained from exercising clemency when the state's parole board has recommended it. (Perry can only commute a sentence if the parole board first recommends doing so--but he can also issue a 30-day stay of execution and ask the board to re-examine a case.)

The board asked Perry to commute the sentence of Kelsey Patterson in 2004, after deciding that evidence suggested he was not sane when he shot and killed two people. Perry refused. In 2009, Perry went against the board's recommendation and allowed the execution of Robert Lee Thompson, who shot but did not kill a convenience store clerk in a robbery. His accomplice killed another employee, but was not given the death penalty.

For a more exhaustive look at Perry's criminal justice record, check out this post from Texas justice blog Grits for Breakfast.