Monday, December 29, 2008

Dallas Morning News and Rep. Brian McCall Support a Moratorium on Executions

The Dallas Morning News is renewing its call for a moratorium on executions, which it has expressed in at least six editorials since the first one in 2001. The editorial today also mentions State Rep Brian McCall's support for a moratorium. He is from Plano, which is in the Dallas area. Brian McCall is so far the only Republican state legislator who has ever voted for a moratorium. He voted in 2001 for the bill by Rep Dutton that included a moratorium provision. That bill received more than 50 votes on the floor of the Texas House.

It was Texas Moratorium Network that first identified Rep McCall as a supporter of a moratorium in 2001. Scott Cobb and Kerry Cook were at the capitol one day in 2001 waiting for a committee hearing on one of the moratorium bills. They used the time to go around to visit with various legislators. They found McCall in the hall near the vending machines and Kerry told him his story of being an innocent person who spent 20 years on death row. McCall seemed to have already known who Kerry was and told him during their 20-minute talk that he was "with you" and supported a moratorium. He has maintained his support ever since.

Here is today's DMN Editorial:

Editorial: Death penalty moratorium needed
05:00 AM CST on Monday, December 29, 2008

The year draws to a close with Texas in its familiar No. 1 place nationally in capital punishment statistics (18 of the nation's 37 executions in 2008). It has also been a year rich with examples of why this state should stop its error-prone machinery of death.

For a change, discussion about flawed justice need not start in Dallas County, the nation's ground zero for DNA exonerations. Just to the north, Collin County illustrates how even a highly educated, affluent community can get it wildly wrong in the high-stakes gamble called capital punishment.

No murder case more nauseated North Texas than the 1993 strangulation of 7-year-old Ashley Estell after she was plucked from a Plano city park. A Collin County jury deliberated only 27 minutes before convicting serial molester Michael Blair of capital murder. It took far longer – 14 years – for the truth to fully emerge. DNA and other forensic tests undermined the case so thoroughly that a judge dismissed the conviction this summer.

In a second discredited case, evidence has never been a question. Rather, it took 18 years for the truth to emerge about an illicit sexual affair that the trial judge had been having with Collin County District Attorney Tom O'Connell, who personally asked jurors for the death sentence. The double murder conviction against Charles Dean Hood raised serious questions of corrupted ethics this summer, and the courts have yet to address it.

There is no quick or neat fix for breakdowns in justice that range from poor technology to dishonesty among officers of the court. Dozens of DNA exonerations across the state – including the nation-leading 19 in Dallas County – have demonstrated how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be. Further, statistics indicate a disturbing arbitrariness of capital punishment, varying greatly by county. Data also show that a killer is far likelier to die for killing a white person.

It's notable that a veteran state lawmaker from conservative Collin County, Plano's Brian McCall, is sufficiently concerned about the justice system that he favors a two-year moratorium on executions in Texas. Mr. McCall is a Republican with law-and-order bona fides, having authored legislation in 1994 creating the state's first criminal DNA database.

That tool has achieved its primary objective of helping law enforcement officials identify culprits and solve crimes. It has also offered new perspective on how much more reform our system of laws requires before we can be confident that fatal error will never occur in Huntsville's busy death chamber.

It's the view of this newspaper that the justice system will never be foolproof and, therefore, use of the death penalty is never justified.

Mr. McCall comes at the question differently, asserting the deterrent benefits of capital punishment and arguing at the same time for better safeguards against bias and failure.

On the need for better safeguards, this newspaper finds common ground with Mr. McCall. On the need for a hiatus in Huntsville, we hope lawmakers who convene in Austin next year will find the courage confront the issue. READ MORE about why this newspaper reversed its 100-plus years of support for the death penalty.

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