State needs innocence commission
A poignant drama unfolded in the state Capitol last week that should have
been witnessed by all Texans.
9 men at a head table in the Senate chamber looked out at a sea of faces
and shared stories of lost freedom. Unjustly convicted in Texas courts,
each was locked away in prison until the truth of his innocence was
established, most of them through DNA tests.
The first to speak, James Lee Woodard, lost 27 years after the travesty of
a wrongful conviction in Dallas County. Brandon Moon spoke of his lost 17
years. And Charles Chatman, 27 years. James Curtis Giles, 10 years. Carlos
Lavernia, 15 years. Alejandro Hernandez, 13 years. Billy James Smith, 19
years. James Waller, 10 years. Thomas McGowan Jr., 23 years.
Some told their stories with passion and resolve, others with sadness. The
facts chill to the bone. They reveal how scant or sketchy evidence, faulty
witness identification, faulty forensics and gamesmanship by prosecutors
helped railroad innocent people and let the guilty get away.
"It was a nightmare," said Mr. McGowan, erroneously picked out of a photo
lineup by a rape victim in Richardson in 1985. "It could happen to your
kids; it could happen to you."
Lawmakers in Texas must do something about that ghastly possibility. Eight
lawmakers were in the audience Thursday to hear the testimonials of the
exonerated men. Also attending were legal experts, judges, police brass
and other law enforcement officials.
They gathered at the invitation of Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston, who has
championed the forMation of a state innocence commission to dissect cases
of exonerated people and recommend ways to improve the system. The concept
is a sound one and has been adopted by at least 5 states.
It's needed badly in Texas, which has 33 DNA-established exonerations to
date, more than any other state. Seventeen are from Dallas County, more
than in any other U.S. county.
News flashes about Dallas cases obscure the fact that local exonerations
would not be achieved were it not for the sound practice of storing
biological evidence in all criminal cases. No other Texas county has done
that; one can only imagine how many wrongly convicted people from the 253
other Texas counties have no shot at DNA exoneration. A special commission
could recommend best practices for evidence storage, among a long list of
other law enforcement procedures.
Credit goes to several local officials for attending Mr. Ellis' summit and
pledging to work to improve justice. They include District Attorney Craig
Watkins, Republican Sen. Bob Deuell, Democratic Rep. Terri Hodge,
Democratic Rep. Paula Pierson, Dallas Assistant Police Chief Ron Waldrop
and Richardson Police Chief Larry Zacharias. Two judges from the Texas
Court of Criminal Appeals Barbara Hervey and Cheryl Johnson offered
We hope the list of participants reflects momentum for the Ellis proposal
after years of indifference and hostility in the Legislature. His
legislation cleared the Senate last year but was snuffed out in a House
Roadblocks must be eliminated in next year's lawmaking session, and Mr.
Ellis deserves robust support from the Dallas-area delegation.
In fact, a Dallas Republican should step forward to sponsor the bill in
the House. That would provide the political and geographic balance to help
Mr. Ellis, a Democrat, secure passage.
No county has borne more shame than Dallas County for the outrage of
miscarriage of justice. No county has a greater responsibility to change
Texas law to prevent tragic mistakes in the future.Potential legal reforms
A state innocence commission could recommend best practices in these
Eyewitness identification and testimony
Preservation of biological evidence
Defendant's access to case files
The right to competent defense counsel
Ethical and legal responsibilities of prosecutors
(source: Editorial, Dallas Morning News)
Police: Convicted rapist charged in SMU co-ed's 1984 slaying showed little
When Dallas police investigators finally came face to face last month with
the 300-pound convicted sexual predator who they say brutally killed an
SMU coed more than 23 years ago, the state prison inmate's reaction was
"He made a comment that this was probably going to ruin his chance for
parole," lead Detective Linda Crum said of her nearly hourlong interview
with Donald Andrew Bess. Mr. Bess, 59, was charged last week with capital
murder in the October 1984 slaying of Angela Samota, 20, who was found
raped and stabbed repeatedly in her condominium near campus. Investigators
matched preserved DNA evidence from the crime scene to Mr. Bess through a
Angela Samota Detectives Crum and Ken Penrod questioned Mr. Bess last
month at a state prison in Huntsville, where he's serving a life sentence,
with the possibility of parole, for multiple rape convictions in the
Houston area. They say he showed little remorse when confronted.
"My personal opinion only is that he knew that we got him," Detective Crum
said. "He said, 'You just ruined my day.' He said he thought he couldn't
eat that day."
Detective Penrod said the convicted rapist's "only concern was for
"This lady has lost her life brutally, and his concern was whether or not
he was going to have an appetite the rest of the day," he said.
Mr. Bess will be brought to Dallas to face the new charge in the next few
weeks. Prosecutors will decide soon whether to pursue the death penalty.
In announcing the charge last week, police released new details about what
they believe happened early Oct. 13, 1984.
Mr. Bess was probably attacking Miss Samota around the time her concerned
boyfriend stood outside pounding on the condo's door, said Lt. Craig
Miller, commander of the homicide unit. When no one answered, he said, the
boyfriend left to search the neighborhood.
Lt. Miller said he suspects that Mr. Bess followed the junior computer
science and electrical engineering major from a bar in the Greenville
Avenue area to her condominium off University Boulevard, east of Central
Donald Andrew Bess It was reported shortly after the slaying that Miss
Samota had left the bar about 1 a.m. with 2 friends, a young man and
woman. She dropped off the man and stopped briefly at her condo with the
female friend before taking her home.
Miss Samota then apparently stopped briefly at her boyfriend's apartment
before going back to her condo, Lt. Miller said.
About 1:45 a.m., her boyfriend spoke to her on the phone and heard a man's
voice in the background. Miss Samota said there was a strange man in the
condo asking to use the bathroom and phone. The boyfriend later told
investigators there was no urgency in her voice.
Minutes later, when the boyfriend tried calling Miss Samota back and could
not reach her, he drove to her condo. About 2 a.m., he knocked on the
"We know he knocked feverishly on the door," Lt. Miller said. "What we
believe is that while he was there initially at 2 o'clock … that Mr.
Bess was actually inside, and that's the time we believe" she was killed,
Mr. Bess may have fled when the boyfriend left to search the neighborhood,
Lt. Miller said. At some point, the boyfriend called police, and officers
found Miss Samota dead on her bed at 2:17 a.m.
Mr. Bess apparently had acquaintances in the Dallas area and had made
several trips here in the mid-'80s, police said.
Dallas police are investigating whether Mr. Bess might have committed
other violent crimes here between the spring of 1984, when he was released
on parole on Harris County rape and kidnapping charges, and June 1985,
when he was rearrested in the Houston area in another rape.
"That 15-month period, we're going to look at the whole thing," Lt. Miller
said. "[Mr. Bess] told us he was up here numerous times."
Mr. Bess declined an interview request last week.
For Miss Samota's family, whose heartache over the vivacious 20-year-old's
killing has now spanned more years than her life, the arrest in the case
has evoked mixed emotions.
While the family has declined to speak publicly, one of Miss Samota's
siblings issued a written statement last week thanking Dallas police and
mourning their loss.
"Angie grew up a star. She worked hard, had the highest moral and ethical
standards, and cared for everyone," said Miss Samota's brother Thomas.
"She returned the love she had been given, over and over.
"Her brutal slaying devastated our lives. … All of us are now reliving
"I personally have and will have no compassion, not even the slightest
wrinkle for that cold blooded murderer of my sister. The loss is too
great, the sorrow too much to bear."
(source: Dallas Morning News)