The Texas House should amend HB 8 to add a provision for a moratorium on executions and the creation of a commission to study the death penalty system. Contact your legislators (if you live in Texas). HB 8 is a version of Jessica’s Law that includes a provision for the death penalty for a second offense of sexual assault against a child. The bill is likely to come up for a vote on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives as early as this week. Before Texas lawmakers expand the death penalty in Texas, they should first ensure that the system is not putting innocent people at risk of execution. The problems in the criminal justice system that can lead to innocent people being convicted are statewide problems, but recent events in Dallas make it particularly understandable for a Dallas area legislator to offer an amendment to HB 8.

The Dallas Morning News argued in an editorial in January 2007 that executions should be temporarily halted because of the many innocent people who have recently been exonerated after being wrongfully convicted in Dallas County. The editorial was published following the release of Andrew Gossett, who “became the 11th Dallas County man granted his freedom after DNA confirmed what he had been saying for seven years: He didn’t do it. Mr. Gossett had been sentenced to 50 years in prison for a sexual assault he did not commit”.

Soon after Gossett’s release another man, James Waller, became the 12th Dallas County person exonerated by DNA testing since 2001. “Nowhere else in the nation have so many individual wrongful convictions been proven in one county in such a short span,” said Barry C. Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, the legal clinic that championed Mr. Waller’s case. In fact, Mr. Scheck said, those 12 such instances are more than have occurred anywhere else except the entire states of New York and Illinois since the nation’s first DNA exoneration, in 1989.

We need to protect children from sexual predators, but we also need to protect innocent people from being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. If HB 8 passes with the death penalty provision intact, then it is highly likely that another innocent person will wind up on death row for a crime he did not commit. Amending HB 8 to attach a provision for a two-year moratorium on executions would provide enough time for a special commission to study the death penalty system and make recommendations that would decrease the risk of executing an innocent person. While the system is being studied, the prudent step is to halt executions, so that we do not make a mistake that can not be corrected.

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