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Saturday, July 24, 2004

DA: 'I think this is the beginning of the end of the death penalty'


The Beaumont Enterprise
07/24/2004 

Jefferson County has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to prosecute killer Walter Bell Jr., and expended countless hours of work. 

He's had three trials in Beaumont, been found guilty three times in the 1974 deaths of Ferd and Irene Chisum in their Port Arthur home, and three times has been sentenced to die. 

Now that money and effort might all be for naught. 


Criminal District Court Judge Charles Carver on Friday recommended that the Court of Criminal Appeals commute Bell's sentence to life in prison because he is mentally retarded. 

"I think this is the beginning of the end of the death penalty," Jefferson County District Attorney Tom Maness said Friday. 

If Texas juries had the option to sentence killers to life without the possibility of parole, and capital punishment were abolished, protest from the state's prosecutors would be little more than a grumble, he predicted. 

It's expensive, it's time-consuming and it's stressful to seek the death penalty, Maness said. 

"It's so difficult," he said. "It gets more difficult all the time." 

Beaumont-based attorney Hal Laine defended Bell in his 1982 trial in the murder of Ferd Chisum. 

The death penalty is too random, he said. Similar crimes committed in different counties with different juries can have totally different outcomes. 

"There are many, many murderers who do not face the possibility of a death sentence," he said. 

That possibility is a source of anxiety for attorneys on both sides, Laine said. 

"There are mistakes made. Mistakes do happen," Laine said. "Once the death comes, you can't correct that." 

In the 36 states where juries can choose the death penalty or life without parole, they choose life at a ratio of 3-to-1, said Rick Halperin, a death penalty opponent and Southern Methodist University history professor. 

"It's clear that juries are not in love with death sentencing," he said. 

Reach this reporter at: (409) 833-3311, ext. 415 

rstone@beaumontenterprise.com 

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