Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle is retiring. He was first elected in 1976. The next DA in Travis County should reflect how the Travis County community's feelings on the death penalty have evolved since 1976 and pledge that the death penalty is off the table within Travis County.
Last October when Paul Burka first reported that Earle may be retiring, Burka wrote that "a DA is supposed to be the conscience of the community", which brings up the issue of to what extent the conscience of the community in Travis County has changed since 1976.
I expect it has changed enough that any person who seeks the Democratic nomination for Travis County District Attorney in 2008 is going to have to seek the support of voters within a community whose conscience does not include support for the Texas death penalty. Of course, there are voters here who support the death penalty in theory, but there are many more whose theoretical support is trumped by their disgust with how the death penalty operates in Texas. And in Travis County, there is also a substantial bloc of voters who reject the death penalty both in theory and as it is practiced.
I am certain that a big majority of Democratic voters, if not all voters, in Travis County believe that the death penalty system in Texas is broken.
There is a precedent already in Texas for a district attorney to declare a county-wide moratorium on death penalty prosecutions. The Nueces County District Attorney’s Office put a hold on seeking the death penalty in capital murder cases last October in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear a case that questions whether lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment.
But I expect the people of Travis County know that the problems with the death penalty system are bigger and deeper than just the issue of how a lethal injection is administered. The Texas death penalty system is riddled with problems from start to finish, from the initial investigation and arrest, the process used to decide whether to seek the death penalty, the actual prosecution and defense of a capital trial, the appeals process and the manner in which an execution is finally carried out.
The most fundamental problem is perhaps an inability to distinguish with certainty whether a person is guilty or innocent. If a system can not ensure that the guilty are convicted and the innocent protected, then the death penalty should be off the table. The need for local prosecutors to impose a moratorium on death penalty prosecutions is particularly great because of the failure of state leaders to enact a moratorium and create a commission to study the death penalty. In fact, the state legislature would not even create an innocence commission.
I am sure that the people of Travis County are very comfortable with life without parole as an alternative to the death penalty. Any candidate who seeks to become district attorney in Travis County should pledge not to seek the death penalty. Life without parole is a valid alternative. In a contested Democratic primary in Travis County, a candidate who acknowledges that the death penalty system in Texas is riddled with problems and puts innocent people at risk of execution is likely to be rewarded with votes.