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Texas Center for Actual Innocence

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the requirements for having a case considered by the Texas Center for Actual Innocence (TCAI)?
TCAI considers all requests from inmates who have claims of actual innocence, except those cases where the inmate has been sentenced to death. For assistance with a capital case, please contact:

Capital Punishment Center
University of Texas School of Law
727 E. Dean Keeton St.
Austin, TX 78705

We do not take cases without innocence claims but that involve other issues, no matter how meritorious those other issues might be. For example, claims that a lawyer was ineffective, or that the police violated the Fourth or Fifth Amendments, are not claims that we can examine, unless the case also involves an actual innocence claim.
How do you define "actual innocence?"
TCAI defines "actual innocence" in two ways: First, the inmate did not engage in the conduct for which he was convicted, nor did he participate with others in the conduct. In other words, it was a case of mistaken identification of the inmate as the perpetrator of the offense. Examples of situations in which the inmate might be "innocent" of the offense, but which would not qualify for "actual innocence" treatment would be claims of self-defense, defense of third persons, duress, or legal insanity. In each of those situations, the inmate was present and engaged in conduct that might or might not have violated the criminal law, depending upon the defense presented.
The second situation in which there might be a claim of actual innocence is a case of false accusation of the inmate as the perpetrator of an offense. In this situation, there was no conduct engaged in by the inmate that violated the criminal laws. The offenses may or may not have been committed by somebody else. This most typical situation in which such claims occur are cases involving an accusation of sexual assault on a child.
What kind of evidence is needed to prove actual innocence?
The law attaches a strong presumption of legality to a criminal conviction. The conviction will be treated as final unless the inmate can show in one of two special ways that he or she is actually innocence. First, the inmate is able by clear and convincing evidence to prove by new evidence that he is actually innocent. New evidence means evidence that was not introduced in trial, nor was it available to the defense to introduce at trial. An example would be if physical evidence was not subjected to DNA testing before conviction, but such testing after trial excludes the inmate as a perpetrator of the offense. This is called a bare claim of actual innocence. It does not require that any constitutional error have occurred during the inmate's trial.
The second method occurs when there was a constitutional error during trial and that error resulted in information that might have proved the inmate's innocence from being introduced at the trial. An example would be if the defense lawyer was ineffective in the investigation or trial of the case and as a result a valid defense of alibi was not presented at trial. This method does not depend upon new evidence of actual innocence, but instead upon evidence of a constitutional violation that probably resulted in a trial in which an innocent person may have been convicted.
What if an inmate has a claim of actual innocence but also other grounds for release from prison not related to innocence, such as a claim of ineffective assistance of defense counsel or prosecutorial misconduct?
If TCAI accepts the innocence claim, it will also take all necessary steps to preserve the inmate's other claims even if that means filing a petition for writ of habeas corpus to avoid forfeiture of those claims.
What if the inmate pleaded guilty? Or confessed to the police?
If there is new evidence of actual innocence and that the confession or the plea of guilty was not voluntary because of coercion, then a claim of actual innocence can be brought despite the confession or plea of guilty.
Will TCAI take a case in which the person has not yet been convicted?
No, TCAI takes only those cases in which the person has already been convicted of an offense.
Will TCAI take a case if there was a conviction, but it is being appealed?
No, in that situation, the inmate has a lawyer actively working on the case so the inmate needs to work with that lawyer.
Will TCAI take a case in which the person is on community supervision, deferred adjudication, parole, mandatory conditional release, or has completely served his sentence?
No, TCAI will devote its limited resources only to persons who are in prison when the case is accepted.
What is the procedure for having a case considered?
We do not accept cases by telephone or email. The request must be in writing from the inmate; it cannot come from family or friends. The inmate can write us at:

Texas Center for Actual Innocence
University of Texas School of Law
727 E. Dean Keeton St.
Austin, TX 78705
Must an inmate write the letter, or can it come from someone else?
The request must come from the inmate. It cannot come from family or friends.
What about inmates who do not speak English?
We have both English and Spanish speakers.
Once TCAI accepts a case, what is the procedure for handling the inmate's claim?
There are two phases. The initial phase is the screening phase. When we receive a request to consider a case, if the case satisfies our requirements, the inmate will receive a response seeking further information. If the inmate has provided little or no details as to the claim of innocence, the response from TCAI will be a simple inquiry for detailed information. If the inmate has provided some detailed information, then the response will be in the form of a questionnaire.

When the questionnaire is returned, we will examine it to determine whether the case warrants further investigation. If it is determined by TCAI that further investigation is not warranted, the inmate will be informed of that and the case will be closed. If it is determined that further investigation is warranted, then the second phase, called the investigative phase, begins. We pursue the investigation until either the inmate's innocence is established or it is determined that proof of innocence is not possible. If investigation discloses that the inmate is probably actually innocent, then we will find counsel to pursue post- conviction judicial or clemency proceedings.
What types of evidence must there be for a case to enter the investigative phase?
There is no simple answer to this question. Generally, if there is physical evidence in a case that was not tested, or if there are witnesses who were either not interviewed or who have recanted (changed) their testimony, then the case will enter the investigative phase. It is not necessary that there be DNA (or other physical) evidence proving actual innocence.
Does TCAI charge for its assistance?
No, neither TCAI nor any volunteer attorney working on a TCAI case will charge for any legal services provided. However, if there are investigative expenses, TCAI may ask the inmate's family to reimburse TCAI for all or part of those expenses if the family has the financial ability to do so.
Is there a way to check on the status of an investigation?
To protect the confidentiality of communications with inmates, we do not release information to third parties. Due to the volume of requests we receive, inquiries from agents of the inmate will not be acknowledged. There are no exceptions to this policy. Inmates are kept apprised of the status of their cases by the team investigating their claims.
How long does it take to complete an investigation?
There is no simple answer to this question. Some investigations are completed in a day; while others have lasted well over one year. The more evidence there is to examine, and the more difficulties we encounter in gaining access to the evidence, the longer the investigations take.
Do you take cases from death row?
We do not take cases from death row. When we receive a request from death row, we refer it to the Capital Punishment Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. The faculty and students at that Clinic have the expertise in the complex field of capital punishment law needed to give the request appropriate consideration and have agreed to accept referral from TCAI.
Is correspondence between the inmates and the TCAI entitled to special treatment from prison officials (e.g., must prison officials treat such correspondence as attorney mail)?
There is generally no attorney-client relationship between inmates and TCAI or its agents. Consequently, prison officials might well decline to treat inmate correspondence to TCAI as privileged in any way. How such mail is treated will vary from state to state, and possibly even from prison to prison. Inmates should not assume that it will be treated as mail to their attorneys.
How quickly does it take for TCAI to decide whether it will accept a case?
TCAI receives numerous letters from inmates. The letters are screened and investigated by law students under the supervision of qualified lawyer instructors. How quickly the letter is acted upon depends mainly on when it is received during the year because that determines the availability of law students to work on cases. Letters received during December or January, after the conclusion of the fall semester but before the beginning of the spring semester, may not be acted upon until sometime in February. Letters received during the months of May through August, between the end of the spring semester and the beginning of the fall semester, may not be acted upon until October. In either event, the inmate will promptly receive a post card from TCAI acknowledging receipt of the inmate's letter.
Does TCAI accept requests from federal prisoners or from prisoners housed in facilities out of state?
Yes. However, if an actual innocence claim is received from out of state, we will attempt to refer the case to an innocence project near where the inmate is incarcerated.