Saturday, November 13, 2010

This is what we have been saying: Questionable capital cases raise hopes for reform

photoJohnny Hanson Chronicle
Barry Scheck, with former Gov. Mark White at left, calls Friday in Houston for a moratorium on executions in Texas and says Gov. Rick Perry "should admit that there was a mistake" in the 2000 execution of Claude Jones. The inmate's son, Duane Jones, stands at right.

Texas Moratorium Network has known for a long time that the upcoming legislative session would be a ripe time for death penalty reforms (in part because of the case of Todd Willingham, and now the case of Claude Jones, and don't forget Kenneth Foster, Jr whose death sentence commutation in 2007 resulted in the Texas House passing a bill to exclude the death penalty as an option in Law of Parties cases in which the accused did not kill anyone). Now it looks like others are catching up with our opinion that the time to push for major death penalty reforms, including a moratorium on executions is now.

In Spring 2011, Texas Moratorium Network will hold a death penalty issues lobby day as we have during every legislative session since 2003. In 2009, it was the largest, most effective anti-death penalty lobby day ever. We look forward to bringing the message to legislators in the coming months that the public is concerned that innocent people are at risk of being executed, there have already been wrongful executions in Texas and action is required now.

From the Houston Chronicle:
It was, at the very least, an odd political sight: former Texas Gov. Mark White, who had sent almost a score of killers to their executions, rubbing shoulders with New York lawyer Barry Scheck at a downtown press conference.
Scheck is co-director of the Innocence Project, an organization whose goal is to free the incarcerated innocent — and to achieve at least a temporary halt to executions in the United States.
Uniting these unlikely allies was this week's revelation through DNA testing that key evidence that led to the execution of career criminal Claude Jones for a 1989 San Jacinto County robbery-murder was faulty.
White, who insists he never sent an innocent man to his death, termed the events leading to Jones' 2000 execution "every governor's worst horror," and called on the coming Legislature to implement wide-ranging changes in the way courts and governors handle death cases.
Foes of capital punishment believe the cases of Jones, executed after then-Gov. George Bush was given an incomplete report about the career criminal's request for a stay, and Cameron Willingham, who was executed in 2004 on the basis of flawed investigations of a Corsicana house fire in which his three children died, will galvanize legislators and the public to demand reform.
Adding fuel to incipient anti-death penalty fervor, they believe, is the recent case of Anthony Graves, who was exonerated after spending 18 years on death row for a Brenham-area murder he did not commit.

No parole now an option

"It's just mind-boggling," said Houston state Sen. Rodney Ellis, who as acting governor oversaw three executions while Bush was on the presidential campaign trail.
Ellis is optimistic that legislators will enact "common-sense reforms" to improve eyewitness identification procedures, record interrogations and provide more money for indigent defense programs.
Five years ago, Texas offered capital juries the option of assessing convicted killers life without parole.
Major Texas newspapers, including the rock-ribbed conservative Dallas Morning News, have weighed in against capital punishment. Significantly, prosecutors have moved away from seeking death sentences.
This year, Harris County prosecutors sought - and juries awarded - death in just two cases.
Rob Owen, director of the University of Texas' capital punishment clinic, agreed.
"There's inevitably more public skepticism about a system that has produced these highly publicized mistakes," Owen said.

Bush unaware of request

The Jones case was the latest in a series that have raised questions about capital punishment.
One day before his execution, Jones petitioned Bush for a stay so that a hair found at the murder scene - the only physical evidence prosecutors had that linked Jones to the crime - could be subjected to DNA testing.
But Bush's staff counsel, Claudia Nadig, recommended in a memorandum that the governor reject the stay request, never mentioning the request for DNA testing.
Scheck on Friday contended that Bush, who had earlier endorsed post-conviction DNA testing in questioned cases, likely would have granted the stay for testing. Recently completed DNA testing of the hair showed that it came not from Jones but from the victim, Point Blank liquor store owner Allen Hilzendager.
Richard Dieter, director of the national Death Penalty Information Center, said innocence campaigns beginning in the 1990s contributed to a drop in death sentences nationally. Fewer such sentences meant less enthusiasm by district attorneys for seeking death, Dieter said.

Some still see support

Casey O'Brien, for 26 years a prosecutor with the Harris County District Attorney's Office, believes Texans will still support capital punishment "in the right case."
But he acknowledged that prosecutors less frequently seek death penalties in murder cases involving robberies. "Aggravated robbery cases are off the board - unless they're serial killers," he said. "You'd try a case like that 15 years ago and you'd get the death penalty."

Process of law respected

Dennis Longmire, a Sam Houston State University criminal justice professor, is optimistic that publicity surrounding claims of wrongful convictions in capital cases will "resonate" with legislators. But the impact on the general public, he believes, may be "disheartening."
"I think there's a greater sense among elected public officials, whatever their opinion of the death penalty, to have a fundamental respect for the orderly process of law," he said. "I think public officials are more responsible than the common person."
Longmire said surveys he conducted several years ago showed that 90 percent of respondents who favored the death penalty believed that, in the state's last 100 executions, an innocent person had been put to death.
"In talking to students," he said, "they say maybe those who were executed were innocent of their crimes but they were probably guilty of something."

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