Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2022, $500,000)
The Capital Area Private Defender Service (CAPDS) seeks an award of $500,000 under the BJA FY 2022 Upholding the Rule of Law and Preventing Wrongful Convictions Program to expand its post-conviction services program to review, evaluate, investigate, and litigate cases of wrongful conviction.
CAPDS is a non-profit serving indigent defendants in Austin-Travis County, Texas, the eleventh most populous city in the United States. CAPDS is committed to ensuring that the underserved and marginalized members of the community are afforded quality legal representation at every step, including post-conviction. Currently, CAPDS provides direct post-conviction representation to defendants who may have been wrongfully convicted based in substantial part on unreliable DNA evidence.
Since 1989, there have been 400 recorded exonerations in Texas, but only 13 involved Travis County cases. Half of the exonerees are minorities. Travis County does not have a defense-oriented post-conviction program that reviews and litigates cases on behalf of defendants who may have been wrongfully convicted if the case does not involve significant DNA evidence. It is arduous to obtain post-conviction relief in Texas because of the way the system is designed. To succeed in court, a defendant must use new evidence (evidence that is not in the record from the trial) to demonstrate a wrongful conviction. There is no right to post-conviction counsel for wrongfully convicted defendants unless the person is sentenced to death, leaving indigent defendants in a position in which they cannot investigate their cases from prison and few available and qualified attorneys with limited resources to provide help. As a result, many wrongful convictions go unchallenged.
CAPDS’s team of post-conviction litigators have identified systemic problems and indications of wrongful convictions in Travis County through the DNA projects that suggest wrongful convictions in non-DNA cases. CAPDS proposes to use this award to expand its direct-representation post-conviction program by adding staff and investigation support to review, evaluate, investigate, and litigate non-DNA cases of wrongful conviction. CAPDS will use the problematic cases and systemic indicators identified through the DNA projects to launch this expansion, as well as review cases referred by community stakeholders. The information gathered will be presented to stakeholders in an effort to improve the overall system and to ensure that any mistakes made that led to wrongful convictions will not be made again. This effort will benefit underserved populations by providing counsel. CAPDS’s proposal is supported by Travis County and the Travis County judiciary.