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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sharon Keller's Court of Criminal Appeals Says Hearing on Death Penalty Constitutionality Must End

From the Austin American-Statesman:
A Houston defendant cannot challenge the state’s death penalty laws as unconstitutional before his capital murder trial begins, the state’s highest court ruled today.

John Edward Green Jr., charged with robbing and killing a Houston woman in 2008, had challenged the Texas death penalty law because “its application has created a substantial risk that innocent people have been, and will be, convicted and executed.”

District Judge Kevin Fine held a Dec. 6 hearing on Green’s motion, hearing from defense experts who testified about 138 exonerations of U.S. death row inmates since 1978, including 12 in Texas.

At the urging of prosecutors, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted the hearing the following day and requested briefings to determine if proceedings should continue.
Today, the court ruled 6-2 that Fine exceeded his authority and ordered him to dismiss Green’s challenge. Texas law does not allow judges to hold pretrial hearings on the constitutionality of a law, said the opinion by Judge Cathy Cochran.

In addition, until the death penalty statute is applied against Green, he does not have legal standing to challenge the law, the court ruled.

“One does not put the cart before the horse: a defendant has no claim of wrongful conviction or wrongful sentencing before he has even gone to trial,” Cochran wrote.

“It bears noting that no provision of the current (death penalty statute) has been held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court or this Court, although that statute has been attacked many times,” Cochran added.

Judges Tom Price and Paul Womack dissented without submitting an opinion stating their reasons. Recently retired Judge Charlie Holcomb did not participate.

Fine made national news last spring when, in response to a motion from Green’s lawyers, he declared the Texas death penalty law unconstitutional. He later rescinded that ruling and ordered the December hearing, saying he should have heard evidence before reaching such a conclusion.

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