As I write this column as editor of the Voice on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and following the latest racially charged comments from the president, it’s impossible not to think about voices and words. The ones that inspire us. The ones that outrage us. The ones that haunt us. The ones that torment us. The ones that help us. The ones that expose us. The ones that comfort us. The ones that save us. The ones that call us to action.
We are TCDLA, the largest criminal defense organization in the state. Our noble “purpose is to protect and ensure by rule of law those individual rights guaranteed by the Texas and Federal Constitutions in criminal cases; to resist the constant efforts which are now being made to curtail such rights; to encourage cooperation between lawyers engaged in the furtherance of such objectives though educational programs and other assistance; and through such cooperation, education, and assistance to promote justice and the common good.” This is our call to action. Our purpose. Don’t gloss over it because it’s familiar; really read the words. It is no small undertaking.
The members of our Corrections and Parole Committee—Scott Ehlers, David O’Neil, William Habern, Nancy Bunin, Curtis Barton, Daniel Clancy, Gary Cohen, Nicholas Hughes, Scott Pawgan, and Courtney Stamper—heard the call to action from TCDLA and recently became a loud voice for the disaffected and oppressed within the prison system. In 2014, TCDLA passed a resolution “calling for TCDLA to support an Independent State Counsel for Offenders (SCFO) Established Pursuant to the ABA.” There was a very real concern that the SCFO was not operating independent of the influence of the prison system, and that the representation of inmates provided by SCFO suffered because of that influence. This concern was brought to the State Bar’s Legal Services to the Poor in Criminal Matters Committee (LSPCM). As a member of that committee also, Scott Ehlers is the principal author of the recent report examining the operations of the SFFO. The report is sure to inspire necessary change to improve representation of inmates by SCFO. The full report is posted on Voice Online, and the Texas Observer has published a frank story on the report. See https://www.texasobserver.org/new-report-finds-surprise-indigent-defense-attorneys-shouldnt-be-under-the-control-of-the-state-prison-system/. Both are worth reading.
Mike Ware, among other heroes and heroines of our group, is a powerful voice for the wrongfully convicted. His featured article outlines the law for attacking false evidence and junk science in wrongful convictions for all of us. There are wrongfully convicted people in prison in our state. Their voices should not be muted because the system failed. They write us letters. The least we can do is respond back even if it’s just to refer them to the Innocence Project of Texas for help or explain that we cannot help. Let’s not ignore the letter from the inmate who may have been wrongfully convicted. Let’s not stamp out that voice crying for help.
It is the voices and words of the political dissidents of 1776—our founding fathers—that bring us together every July to read the Declaration of Independence with one collective powerful voice that has made people take notice. Let’s make certain that we continue to recite the words of the Declaration and Bill of Rights with one loud and proud voice. Those are words that need to be spoken, remembered, and really heard. It will take all of us again this year to make that happen.
So, as we begin another new year, let’s be intentional and purposeful with our words and voices. Let’s collectively serve the purpose of TCDLA in every courtroom with every case. Voices and words have always been important. But in this time, they are more important than ever before. What will your voice be this year? What words will you use to make your voice heard? What will our collective voice be this year? What words will we use to make our voice heard? Let’s continue to speak out. Words matter. Our Voice matters.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963