The approval of a moratorium in the two committees in 2001 came as a complete surprise. This year, the two committees have not yet heard the moratorium issue. When hearings are scheduled, it is quite possible that we will see a repeat of 2001 because of the reports in the past two years that as many as three innocent people may have been executed in Texas: Ruben Cantu, Cameron Willingham and Carlos De Luna. Also, Ernest Willis was exonerated and released from Texas death row in 2004 after spending 17 years there for a crime he did not commit.
Paper: Houston Chronicle
Date: SUN 04/22/2001
Edition: 4 STAR
State pushing fairness more in justice reform
By JANET ELLIOTT, Houston Chronicle AustinBureau
AUSTIN - After decades spent passing the toughest criminal laws and building the largest penal system in the nation, Texas lawmakers are taking a timeout.
This session, "tough on crime" talk has been replaced by discussions of reform and fairness. Instead of adding to the list of crimes for which a person can be executed, the Legislature is giving serious consideration to banning the execution of the mentally retarded and offering juries the option of sentencing capital murderers to life without parole.
Legislation to allow voters to decide whether executions should be halted for two years while the cases of the 445 individuals on death row are re-examined has made it out of committees in both the House and the Senate.
"Six months ago, had you told me we'd even be here, I wouldn't have believed it," former death-row inmate Randall Dale Adams told supporters of a death-penalty moratorium outside the Capitol last week.
In 1989, Adams was released from prison, where he spent more than a dozen years after being wrongfully convicted for the murder of a Dallas police officer. He said he is one of seven inmates in Texas and 95 nationwide who have been released from death row since 1971 after being exonerated of the crimes for which they were convicted.
Already this session, Gov. Rick Perry has signed into law a bill giving Texas inmates the right to petition a court for DNA tests using new technology that may not have been available at their trials.
The Senate has approved legislation setting minimum standards for court-appointed lawyers, for the first time kicking in state money to help pay the lawyers. The Senate also has passed bills to stop racial profiling and to provide more compensation for those who are wrongfully convicted.
The reforms may be an unintended legacy of President Bush. Bush was an ardent defender of the state's criminal justice system and presided over a record 40 executions during his last year as governor.
But his race gave a platform to critics who could point to flaws in the system such as ill-prepared lawyers appointed to represent poor defendants. The case of a lawyer who dozed during his client's capital murder trial became famous nationwide.
In 1999, Bush vetoed an indigent-defense reform bill, saying he supported the system that allowed trial judges to appoint defense attorneys. This year, Perry has expressed support for statewide standards for attorneys defending indigent clients.
Perry also has said the state should take a hard look at giving juries the option of sentencing capital murder defendants to life without parole. Bills to do that have been passed by committees in both chambers.
The House is scheduled to debate a bill Monday that would ban the execution of mentally retarded people.
"It's ironic because the changes that President Bush opposed are now coming about because of his presidential campaign," said Rep. Juan Hinojosa, a McAllen Democrat who serves as chairman of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.
"The media, the different candidates that were running at that time, the different interest groups focused on the presidential race and the criminal justice system because we are executing more people than any other state in the nation," said Hinojosa, who is carrying many of the reform bills.
"Then, all of a sudden, we have the advancements made in forensic evidence such as DNA that showed we had convicted a whole bunch of people wrongly," continued Hinojosa, a lawyer who sometimes represents criminal defendants. "So that leads to the conclusion that there is a very strong possibility that there have been some innocent people executed in our state."
Bush maintained that no innocent person was executed in the state while he was governor.
Nearly a dozen men have been freed from Texas prisons in the past three years after DNA evidence cleared them of rape and murder charges.
One of those was Christopher Ochoa, who was released in January after he was exonerated by a DNA test and other evidence. Ochoa had been coerced by an Austin police officer into falsely confessing to raping and murdering Nancy DePriest at an Austin Pizza Hut in 1988. He implicated a friend, Richard Danzinger, who also was freed this year.
Jeanette Popp, the mother of the victim, has become an activist for an execution moratorium.
"There are those who say that the system isn't broken. I challenge them to listen to my story, to Randall's story, to look us in the eye and tell us justice was done," said Popp.
"DNA made everybody sit up and pay a little bit closer attention to the process," said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston.
"Our criminal justice system is broken, and it needs to be repaired," said Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, the author of indigent-defense and hate-crime bills.
But not everyone is happy with the tinkering.
Harris County state District Judge Ted Poe said the system isn't broken. He said cases are thoroughly reviewed by state and federal judges.
"We want the judicial system to review cases," said Poe. "We don't want the Legislature to get involved in reviewing cases. That's not their area."
Advocates for crime victims also are watching some of the changes with dismay.
"This is one of the toughest sessions for victims in my memory," said William "Rusty" Hubbarth, who follows legislation for Justice for All, a Houston victims' rights group.
Chuck Noll, a prosecutor who is monitoring legislation for Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, said the session is turning into a disaster for law enforcement.
"All the people in the Legislature heard was, `Texas is bad, Texas is bad,' " Noll said. "We as prosecutors didn't feel comfortable defending ourselves in the media, didn't respond to these charges publicly because we don't feel professionally that's our job.
"As a result, there was a drumbeat for two years about how evil Texas is and how bad the system is, with no response from anybody in law enforcement. So there's this general feeling, `Oh, gee, there must be something wrong, so let's pass all these bills to fix it.' "
Kenneth Armbrister, a conservative Democrat from Victoria who is chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, believes there is more at play than just a response to criticism from outside Texas. Armbrister said he traveled around the country last year campaigning for Bush and defending the state's criminal justice record.
"I don't mind taking that heat," said Armbrister, a former police officer.
But Armbrister said he supports the moratorium bill because legislators already have acknowledged criminal justice weaknesses by advancing the bills on DNA testing and defense lawyers. Perry even declared the DNA bill an emergency.
"It would be somewhat hypocritical for us to then say, `Oh, well, we've just passed those, but we still think everything is the way it ought to be.' You can't have it both ways," Armbrister said.
The committees run by Armbrister and Hinojosa this year have one more Democrat than Republican, a turnaround from last session, when Republicans dominated the committees. The vote in both committees on the moratorium bills broke down along party lines.
Paper: Houston Chronicle
Date: THU 04/12/2001
Edition: 3 STAR
Halting state's executions may be up to voters / Initiatives on moratorium, justice review clear panel
By JANET ELLIOTT, Houston ChronicleAustin Bureau
AUSTIN - Texas voters would decide whether to halt executions for two years while the fairness of the state's criminal justice system is studied, under a resolution passed by a Senate committee Wednesday in a tight vote that fell along party lines.
The surprising 4-3 vote by the Criminal Justice Committee is the first step in a long process to get the issue of a moratorium before voters in November.
Senate Joint Resolution 25 would let Texans amend the constitution to prohibit the state from carrying out lethal injections until Sept. 2, 2003. The committee also passed Senate Bill 680, which would set up a special commission to study possible flaws in the system, including legal representation of indigent inmates, the possible innocence of death row inmates and whether race is a factor in such cases.
"By passing this committee, we have cleared one hurdle. We have many more," said Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, sponsor of the resolution and bill.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, a member of the committee, voted for the bill.
Shapleigh said he doesn't plan to push the measure to a Senate floor debate right away. He needs time to find the 21 votes necessary to bring the measure up for floor debate, he said.
Two-thirds of the Senate and House would have to pass the proposed constitutional amendment for it to be placed on the November ballot.
Texas by far leads the nation's in executions and has 449 on death row. Last year, the state set a national record for executions when 40 people were put to death. Six have been executed this year.
Sen. Kenneth Armbrister, D-Victoria, is a former police officer and chairman of the committee. Armbrister said he supported Shapleigh's bill because of steps lawmakers have taken this year to strengthen the state's criminal justice system.
Last week, Gov. Rick Perry signed legislation that established a process for inmates to seek DNA testing that might clear them. Tuesday, the Senate passed a bill to establish standards for appointing defense lawyers to represent poor defendants.
"It would be somewhat hypocritical for us to then say, `Oh well, we've just passed those but we still think everything is the way it ought to be.' You can't have it both ways," said Armbrister.
Flaws in the state's capital punishment system were widely publicized during the presidential election and highlighted in a Houston Chronicle series in February.
The reports and other studies found capital cases involving unqualified or ill-prepared defense attorneys and even lawyers who slept through parts of a capital trial. Nearly a dozen men, including one who had spent time on death row, have been released after new DNA testing proved their innocence.
Kerry Max Cook last week told the committee that he spent 20 years in prison - 13 on death row - before testing on DNA evidence spurred his release in 1999.
"This is what I survived for," Cook said. "I'm not an abolitionist. I'm fighting for the innocent victims of the death penalty."
Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, voted against the resolution, "keeping in mind the rights of the victims and the victims' families . . . ," said spokesman Jerry Johnson.
Perry does not believe a moratorium is necessary, said spokesman Gene Acuna.
Armbrister said a popular vote also would allow Texans to express whether they still believe in the way the state administers capital punishment.
"It sets up a vehicle for Texans to ask themselves that question: Do we believe that the system we have now in place guarantees proof beyond a reasonable doubt that this individual deserves to be executed?" said Armbrister.
Religious leaders praised the vote.
"Our Texas capital punishment system is a broken legal-social system," said Bishop Michael Pfeiffer of the Diocese of San Angelo and president of the Texas Conference of Catholic Bishops. "The Legislature should suspend executions while we as a state conduct a thorough examination of the system."
Dianne Clements of the Houston-based victims' rights group Justice for All, called the moratorium "a preposterous idea which has no foundation."
The bill calls for the Capital Punishment Commission to include 11 members experienced in criminal justice issues. The governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker each would appoint three members; the deans of the law schools at the University of Texas and Texas Tech University would name two others.
Similar legislation by Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, is pending in a House committee.