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Texas Senate Votes To Strengthen DNA Testing & Midday Roundup

By KERA News & Wire Services

Dallas, TX – The Texas Senate has voted to strengthen prison inmates' access to post-conviction DNA testing.

Texas DNA testing has exonerated about 40 former inmates in recent years, the most in the nation, according to the Innocence Project.

State law allows post-conviction DNA testing if certain requirements are met. The bill by Sen. Rodney Ellis of Houston requires testing if biological evidence was not previously tested, or if new techniques would give more accurate results.

It also requires any newly-discovered, unidentified DNA samples to be compared with a federal and state DNA databases.

A similar bill passed the Senate in 2009.

The bill now goes to the House for consideration.

Critical wildfire danger in Texas through Sunday

Bulldozers and airplanes have been put on alert as Texas faces an increased threat for wildfires.

The Texas Forest Service says hot weather, extremely dry vegetation and widespread drought are combining to create dangerous fire conditions through Sunday. The agency says the threat is high for wildfires west of Interstate 35, including the Western and Southern Plains, the Trans Pecos and the Hill Country.

Agency firefighters this year have battled more than 600 blazes burning 70,000 acres. That compares to less than 150 fires blackening about 5,200 acres a year ago.

Crews on Monday contained a 27-acre wildfire in a small border town near Laredo, but not before it destroyed four homes and damaged several others. No injuries were reported in the fire in El Cenizo.

Senate approves academic priority for Texas Grants

The Texas Senate has voted to give priority for Texas Grants financial aid to top-performing students.

The Texas Grants program was created to give financial aid to poor students. It is given on a first-come, first-serve basis, but trends show that about half don't graduate within six years.

Supporters say the bill won't take money away from poor students, but will put those who are most likely to graduate at the front of the line.

Critics say the change could limit financial aid to minority students from the state's poorest school districts.

The change would apply to grants awarded for the fall 2013 semester.

The bill now goes to the House, which is considering a similar measure.

Catholic bishops protest budget cuts at Capitol

Catholic bishops from across the state gathered at the Capitol to promote their legislative priorities and urge lawmakers to put human needs first.

Bishops on Wednesday said that even with the burden of a massive revenue shortfall, protecting human life is the most sacred responsibility lawmakers have.

The Texas Catholic Conference is just one of several groups rallying at the Capitol both for and against staggering cuts to state programs.

The House recently approved a budget that slashes spending in every corner of state services. But public education and health care took the hardest hits, leaving many Texans outraged. Religious leaders said they want lawmakers to write a budget that prioritizes Texans in the greatest need and to use all of the Rainy Day Fund.

Rejection certain, Bradley in place for key vote

Texas Gov. Rick Perry's controversial pick to lead the state Forensic Science Commission is facing certain rejection from the state Senate, but Perry only needs him in the job for another week.

That's long enough for the panel to rule on a case that has raised highly-charged questions of whether Texas sent a man to his execution based on faulty arson evidence.

The forensics panel is scheduled to meet April 14-15 to consider its final report on the case of Cameron Todd Willingham.

Perry presided over Willingham's 2004 execution. Perry appointed Williamson County prosecutor John Bradley to lead the forensics panel in 2009.

Once in charge, Bradley slowed down the panel's work and pushed members to find there was no misconduct by fire investigators in the original 1991 investigation.