As the election nears, we want to bring readers’ attention to the Dallas Morning News’ endorsement of Democrat Susan Strawn for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The endorsement starts off by saying “the judgment of the state’s highest criminal court rightly has been called into question in recent years. Too often, the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned the rulings of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. And Presiding Judge Sharon Keller disgraced the court last year with her life-or-death decision to refuse a condemned man’s request for a stay because the office closed at 5.”
Then the editorial continues with:
Democratic challenger Susan Strawn fits the bill. The Houston lawyer, who also teaches at the University of Houston Law Center, recognizes the court’s shortcomings and offers innovative ideas for improvement. She strikes us as smart, measured, hard working and insightful.
The DMN website has answers from both candidates on a questionnaire. To the question, “What changes, if any, would you like to see made to the administration of the death penalty in Texas?”, Strawn responds:
Susan Strawn: First, I would like to see death penalty cases handled from start to finish in compliance with the Constitution and all applicable law. The reason the Founding Fathers gave criminal defendants Constitutional rights was not because the Founders were soft on crime, but to make sure that the power of the State was exercised fairly against the guilty. Additionally, evidentiary and procedural rules have evolved over a thousand years of Anglo-American tradition, and continue to evolve. These rules exist to ensure that our criminal process is efficient and fair, and that the innocent are not convicted based on unreliable evidence. The most fundamental job of the Court is to ensure that the law is applied and the rules are enforced. The current Court has given short shrift to the law, with the result that there have been too many wrongful convictions and reversals by the federal courts.
Second, we need to improve the quality of counsel for both the prosecution and the defense. We have an adversarial system. In the basic task of fact-finding, the system relies on competent counsel on both sides to investigate the case, and present and cross-examine witnesses at trial. Similarly, the process depends on attorneys – prosecuting and defense – to object to errors and argue those points on appeal. Without a vigorous presentation of the case, neither the jury nor the judge can adequately do its job. Our system simply does not work if one side is not well represented.
On the prosecutorial side, the Court has a key role to play in assuring that prosecutorial misconduct is not rewarded. This does not mean reversing convictions where the integrity of the conviction is not at issue, but rather ensuring that the attorneys involved in egregious conduct are appropriately sanctioned. As a federal prosecutor, I was told on Day One that I was held to a higher standard in court, and that our job was not to win, but to ensure that justice was done. Cutting corners to win undermined your credibility with the court, and jeopardized your career. Maintaining the credibility of law enforcement is critical to our system, and the Court must be willing to hold prosecutors to high standards.
On the defense side, the Court must also ensure quality counsel. Most capital defendants are indigent, and we should extend and hasten ongoing reforms in indigent defense. Inadequate or non-existent defense counsel is a problem in all cases, but it is even more significant in capital cases.
We need to appoint defense counsel in a timely manner, ensure that counsel are appointed at all stages of the proceedings, and police the quality of appointed counsel with meaningful sanctions for inadequate work. As a former prosecutor, I know that having competent defense counsel on the other side of a case meant that the system worked more effectively and efficiently. In addition to improving the quality of justice, I believe that proving competent counsel, far from costing additional state funds, will save the State money by reducing trial time and appeals.
Lastly, we should accelerate the examination and, where appropriate, adoption of the reforms being somewhat belatedly considered by the Criminal Justice Integrity Unit formed in May. There are a number of areas where studies have demonstrated the need for reform, or where best practices have been developed by other states that Texas has yet to review. Texas should use the experience of other states, where relevant, and not waste time and money reinventing the wheel.
Name: Susan Strawn
Street Address: 5615 Morningside Drive, Box 219
State: Texas 77005
Education/Degrees: J.D., University of Texas School of Law, with honors A.B., Princeton University, magna cum laude
Date of Birth: 12/29/1961
Work or Campaign Office Phone Number: 713-447-4360
Fax Number: n/a
E-mail Address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Campaign Web Site Address: www.susanstrawn.com