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3 lawmakers recognized for criminal justice system changes

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DALLAS (AP) — Three state Democratic lawmakers were named The Dallas Morning News’ Texans of the Year for their “sheer force of will and the persuasive power of their cause” in pushing forward several changes to the criminal justice system.

Sen. Rodney Ellis and Sen. John Whitmire, and Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon earned the newspaper’s honor, which was announced Saturday ( ).

This year, the Texas Legislature ended a grand jury selection derided as “pick-a-pal,” created a wrongful convictions review commission and eased punishments for children accused of committing misdemeanor crimes.

Those bills and several others were sponsored or co-sponsored by Ellis, Whitmire or McClendon. The Democrats worked with strong Republican majorities and Republican leaders to get their bills passed.

“It required remarkable grit for them to persevere amid increasingly harsh partisan divisions, particularly with a tea party stalwart in the lieutenant governor’s seat and an equally devout conservative in the governor’s office,” the newspaper said.

Whitmire specifically targeted the “pick-a-pal system” after a series of columns in his hometown newspaper, the Houston Chronicle, explored how some judges could pick friends or acquaintances for a grand jury instead of jurors being randomly selected.

McClendon fought for the exoneration review commission named after Timothy Cole, a former Texas Tech student who was cleared of a rape conviction after he died of illness in prison. The Cole commission will review wrongful convictions and make recommendations on ways to further prevent them.

Ellis has worked for years with criminal-justice advocates, including the nonprofit Innocence Project, to push forward change on bite-mark evidence, faulty eyewitness testimony and improving defendants’ access to evidence and legal counsel.

Texas has had far more exonerated inmates than any other state, and problems with its prisons and court systems have gotten national attention. It has also passed some of the most far-reaching changes in the country to expand DNA testing and compensate the wrongfully imprisoned.

Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, lauded the trio for their work.

“I have a national perspective on this,” Scheck told the newspaper. “Texas has found a lot of solutions.”

Other nominees for Texan of the Year included Jordan Spieth, the Dallas native who won two golf majors in 2015, as well as Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne and teenager Ahmed Mohamed for the attention they received after Mohamed’s arrest for bringing a homemade clock to school.

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