Posts by: "Texas Moratorium Network"

5/19/2002

It’s been busy in Huntsville. This year, Texas already has executed 12 men 
at its prison facility there. And the state is scheduled to execute another 
five in the next several weeks. Texas is unchallenged as the leader in 
cumulative executions since 1982, with more than 265 people being put to 
death here. It’s not a statistic that should make Texans proud.

http://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/editorials/stories/051902dnedideathpenalty.bbb9b.html

The people executed and awaiting execution were convicted of committing 
terrible crimes – actions unthinkable to most people. The public watching 
the recent trials, like those for the murder of the Battaglia children or of 
Aubrey Hawkins, may find little room for compassion. But, and there’s always 
a but, questions in other cases surface, questions that trouble ethical 
people about the use of the death penalty – especially in Texas.

State legislators last year attempted to resolve one of the state’s most 
egregious wrongs: incompetent counsel. The newly formed Task Force on 
Indigent Defense oversees standards for counties’ defense appointments. 
However, that won’t help the approximate 450 current death row inmates who 
may have been victims of Texas’ infamous too-often-incompetent appointed 
lawyers. And with the Court of Criminal Appeals deciding recently that 
Texans have “no constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel” in 
part of the appeals process, the poor on death row may have little recourse 
to justice.

Other questions also persist about access to a fair trial. The Illinois 
Commission on Capital Punishment studied the death penalty process for two 
years and recently issued its report with more than 80 recommendations. The 
commission members included judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers. Its 
recommendations for improved justice can apply to most criminal proceedings.

Texans should take heed.

As Greg Wiercioch of the Texas Defender Service says, “These issues are not 
only relevant to Illinois because it borders on the Great Lakes. If 
anything, Texas epitomizes the issues such as eyewitness identification, 
prosecutorial misconduct, elected judges and racism.”

Hanna Liebman Dershowitz, the legal director of Texas Appleseed, says some 
of the proposed Illinois safeguards would be easy to implement. They include 
videotaping interrogations and allowing eyewitnesses to view possible 
suspects in sequence rather than in a lineup.

Also, some basic ethical considerations raised in the study still challenge 
Texas, such as executing the mentally retarded.

Texas juries may be becoming more sophisticated in their understanding of 
mental illness, but they don’t understand retardation, which is a basic 
impairment of intellectual functioning. Retarded Texas death row inmate John 
Paul Penry now is getting his third sentencing hearing because the Supreme 
Court determined that earlier juries were never properly instructed – new 
jury selection and the sentencing process is expected to take months. This 
case may be overridden by a ruling from the Supreme Court on whether 
executing the retarded should be outlawed as cruel and unusual punishment. 
Many hope the court also provides guidelines for defining retardation. One 
Texas lawyer notes his mentally retarded client is scheduled for execution 
in early June. Even if the Supreme Court doesn’t rule out the death penalty 
for retarded people, this state should.

Texas justice is fearsome. But it should be fair. That’s why the Legislature 
should use this time between sessions to review the work of the Illinois 
commission ( www100.state.il.us). It also should consider whether the death 
penalty in Texas suffers from racial bias, the issue that prompted the 
Maryland governor to place a moratorium on executions this month. And it 
needs to be clear on the financial cost of the death penalty.

The Senate Jurisprudence Committee, chaired by Dallas Sen. Royce West, 
and/or the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, chaired by McAllen Rep. 
Juan Hinojosa, should take on the task. Other elected officials, like the 
attorney general, should review recent reports and reconsider Texas 
practices.

Texans must have a clearer conscience about the people it puts behind bars 
or to death, especially given the rate of executions in this state.

As courts consider death penalty questions, other states stopping

05/19/2002

By ED TIMMS / The Dallas Morning News

Texas’ bigger-than-life ethos is sometimes more brag than fact, but one 
distinction is apparent: No other state has executed more inmates this year.

http://www.dallasnews.com/texassouthwest/stories/051902dntexdeathpenalty.65473.html

So far, 28 offenders have been put to death nationwide, 12 in Texas. And 
Texas accounts for all but two of the 15 executions scheduled in the United 
States through mid-September.

Because of legal complications and angst over how the death penalty is 
administered, several other states that until recently executed offenders 
have stopped – at least for the present.

Several factors contribute to Texas’ sobering record.

Those include a political climate in which the penalty is not a liability, 
as well as state and federal appeals courts that are not hostile to the 
death penalty.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry repeatedly has voiced his support for the death 
penalty, vetoed a bill last year that would have barred the execution of 
mentally retarded offenders and opposes a moratorium on executions.

Such sentiments are not uncommon among political leaders in the states where 
most executions are carried out.

“You have a lot of states outside the South with very large death row 
populations and no executions,” said University of Texas law professor 
Jordan Steiker, an authority on capital punishment who once served as a law 
clerk law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. “Outside the 
South and the border states, there simply hasn’t been the same political 
will.”

Some critics claim that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s 
highest criminal court, repeatedly has turned a blind eye to serious 
shortcomings in how capital cases are tried. Similar charges are leveled 
against the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which also reviews Texas 
death penalty cases.

“We have a politicized, partisan judicial system,” said Steve Hall, director 
of the StandDown Texas Project, which is seeking a death penalty moratorium.

Juries continue


But even as national and international attention focuses on the Lone Star 
State because of the death penalty, and legal challenges continue, juries in 
Texas, which decide punishment in capital cases, continue to sentence 
defendants to die.
“If people in Texas are really, by and large, disgusted with the fact that 
we have a death penalty, I think you would see far fewer death penalty cases 
handed out,” said Diane Beckham, staff counsel for the Texas District and 
County Attorneys Association.

She said she sees little evidence that Texas legislators are being 
encouraged by their constituents to oppose the death penalty.

Texans who oppose the death penalty, or seek a moratorium so that its 
application can be reviewed, assert that the system under which defendants 
are convicted for capital crimes and sent to death row is profoundly flawed. 
And they suggest that Texans are increasingly concerned about how the death 
penalty is applied.

“No other state carries out executions at such a relentless pace as Texas,” 
said Mr. Hall. “This headlong dash occurs in spite of many controversies 
over police and prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate standards of legal 
representation, dubious testimony by so-called experts, an appeals court 
that puts a seal of approval on sleeping lawyers, and a clemency process 
that simply does not fulfill its historic responsibility.”

What some have described as isolated incidents, Mr. Hall said, represent 
systemic problems.

Roe Wilson, chief of post-conviction writs for the Harris County district 
attorney’s office, said that Texas’ death penalty statute has been examined 
repeatedly by higher courts and has withstood the scrutiny.

“Anyone who is executing the death penalty, putting it into place and 
carrying it through like we do in Texas … then you’ve got a vested 
interest in doing it the right way and making sure that the law is as tight 
and well-defined as you possibly can,” Ms. Wilson said.

Litigation avoided


Mr. Steiker said that by defining what qualifies as a capital murder 
narrowly at the guilt-innocence stage of trial, Texas has avoided much of 
the litigation in other states, as has having juries sentence the defendants 
in capital cases. Still, some Texas executions have been held up, as courts 
consider the merits of appeals. Whether that’s part of a cycle, is a fluke, 
or reflects a broader hesitation about the death penalty, is open to 
speculation.
Last-minute reprieves this month postponed the executions of two Texas death 
row inmates, Curtis Lee Moore and Brian Edward Davis, after the U.S. Supreme 
Court received petitions alleging that they were mentally retarded.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals intervened and delayed the execution 
of Smith County death row inmate Henry Dunn last week; in that case, 
questions were raised about the competence of Mr. Dunn’s appellate counsel.

And in February, the Supreme Court also agreed to hear the case of Thomas 
Miller-El, who was sentenced to death in 1986 for the murder of an Irving 
hotel clerk during a robbery. Mr. Miller-El’s attorneys claimed that 
potential jurors were excluded from his trial because of their race.

Supreme Court cases


Two cases before the Supreme Court, neither from Texas, could have a 
significant impact on the death penalty in America.
One case, Atkins vs. Virginia, resulted in reprieves for Mr. Moore and Mr. 
Davis. It examines whether executing mentally retarded offenders is cruel 
and unusual punishment, which is prohibited by the Eighth Amendment of the 
U.S. Constitution. The court is expected to rule in the Atkins case this 
summer.

More than a decade ago, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Texas 
death row inmate Johnny Paul Penry, ruling that instructions to his jury did 
not allow proper consideration of mitigating evidence, such as his mental 
retardation. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in the majority opinion that, 
at that time, there was not sufficient evidence of a “national consensus 
against executing the retarded.”

Mr. Penry was convicted in a subsequent trial, but his death sentence was 
overturned by the Supreme Court last year. A new punishment hearing is under 
way.

Mr. Steiker theorized that if the Supreme Court decides in the Atkins case 
“that there is now an emerging, prevailing consensus against executing 
people with mental retardation,” that would suggest that the way the court 
gauges “societal consensus” is shifting.

Such a shift, he said, could have ramifications for other death row inmates. 
For example, he said, the Supreme Court justices might find that executing 
offenders who were under the age of 18 at the time of the offense is 
unconstitutional, or they might revisit the issue of executing offenders who 
were not directly responsible for a capital murder, so-called 
“non-triggermen.”

‘Up to the states’


Richard Dieter, executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty 
Information Center, said that if the Supreme Court decides to bar the 
execution of the mentally retarded, the justices “may not lay down neatly 
what mental retardation is, and leave it up to the states and courts to 
figure this out.”
And that, he said, is likely to set off considerable debate and legal 
wrangling.

Harris County prosecutors, for example, assert that Mr. Davis, convicted for 
the 1991 stabbing death of Michael Alan Foster in Humble, is not mentally 
retarded – and that claim was first raised in legal petitions on the day he 
was to be executed.

His attorneys point to Mr. Davis’ long history of difficulties in coping 
with day-to-day life, placement in special education classes while in 
school, and a test that placed his IQ at 74 – four points above 70, one 
benchmark for retardation, but within the margin of error.

The Supreme Court also could decide that the execution of the mentally 
retarded does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. If that occurs, 
inmates who were granted reprieves because of Atkins could be facing 
execution again in the near future.

Sentencing by judge


In the second case, Ring vs. Arizona, Supreme Court justices will examine 
the constitutionality of death sentences being handed down by a judge rather 
than a jury.
The case does not directly affect cases in Texas, where juries in capital 
cases decide punishment. But the Ring case has contributed to Texas’ 
dominance of death row statistics in 2002: Pending a ruling by the Supreme 
Court, several states in which judges assess the death penalty are not 
executing offenders.

Ms. Wilson, the Harris County prosecutor, predicts that frequency of 
executions in Texas will increase.

Death penalty reforms in 1995, she said, which restructured the appeals 
process, resulted in “a tremendous number of cases in the federal system.”

“We had a huge glut of cases that arrived … about the same time,” she 
said. “And now they’re starting to come out.”

Here is an example letter we sent to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles regarding Napolean Beazley. Feel free to use this as a template for your own letters.

May 16, 2002

Chairman Gerald Garrett
Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles
P.O. Box 13401, Capitol Station
Austin, Texas 78711

RE: Clemency for Napoleon Beazley

Dear Chairman Garrett:

I am writing on behalf of Texas Moratorium Network to appeal for clemency 
for Napoleon Beazley on two major grounds – his status as a juvenile 
offender at the time of his offense and the racial aspects of the case. We 
would like you to recommend to Governor Perry that he commute Napoleon’s 
sentence to life in prison.

Napoleon was only 17 years old at the time of his crime. There is a growing 
consensus in Texas that we should stop executing people who commit crimes 
under the age of 18. In 2001, the Texas House of Representatives passed a 
bill that would have banned executions of juvenile offenders. The bill did 
not reach the Senate in time for it to be considered before the session 
expired. In 2003, the bill will be filed again and in light of growing 
opposition among Texas voters to executing juvenile offenders, and the fact 
that by continuing to execute juvenile offenders the United States stands 
virtually alone in the world community, the bill will probably pass next 
time. Please do not allow Napoleon to be one of the last juvenile offenders 
to be executed before the Texas Legislature bans the practice.

Texas Moratorium Network is also concerned about the racial aspects of this 
case. Napoleon is an African-American who was sentenced to death by an 
all-white jury for the murder of a white person. Potential black jurors were 
systematically kept off Napoleon’s jury. Maryland recently enacted a 
moratorium on executions in order to complete a study on the issue of race 
and the death penalty. Texas also needs to stop executions in cases where 
race has played an important factor in determining whether a defendant 
receives the death penalty. We need to make sure that defendants are judged 
by the relevant facts of their cases and not by the color of their skin.

Texas Moratorium Network, an organization with a growing support base of 
more than 6,000 people across the state of Texas, is working to establish a 
moratorium on executions, so that a Texas Capital Punishment Commission can 
conduct a comprehensive study of the death penalty system in our state.

Thank you for your consideration,

Sincerely,

Scott Cobb
Texas Moratorium Network

Yesterday was the first of regular May protests outside Polunsky Unit in Livingstone, Texas. Many people are concerned about the situation at Polunsky, which includeds isolation cells, social and sleep deprivation, no television, substandard food, excessive gassings and use of force, hostile, uncaring and sometimes sadistic guards and all the other issues large and small we have been lamenting. People are outraged that TDCJ marches ahead with ever more restrictive policies, and are wondering what we can do to bring about change.

The protests are every Saturday in May in front of Polunsky Unit 3:30 to 5:30. Polunsky is VERY visable, about 3-5 miles south of Highway 190 on FM 350 South. This turnoff is about a quarter of a mile or less west of Highway 59.

5/10/02

Texas Moratorium Network
512.302.6715
www.texasmoratorium.org

Contact: Brian Evans:

Texas Needs to Follow the Example of Maryland and Enact a Moratorium on
Executions

"The decision by Gov. Parris Glendening of Maryland today to impose a
moratorium on executions until the state completes a study of whether there
is racial bias in the use of the death penalty should be another wake-up
call to Texas," said Scott Cobb, a Board member of Texas Moratorium
Network. TMN is a state-wide non-profit organization.

"Race is not only a problem with the administration of the death penalty in
Maryland. Race is one of the major factors that need to be addressed in
Texas too. 41 percent of people on Death Row in Texas are African-American,
65 percent are people of color. An African-American is much more likely to
face the death penalty as opposed to life in prison if the victim was white.
Consider, the case of Napoleon Beazley. Napoleon was a gifted 17-year-old
African American honor student with no previous criminal record at the time
of his crime. He was sentenced to death by an all-white jury for the murder
of a white person," said Scott Cobb of Texas Moratorium Network.

Cobb said, "A moratorium on executions will give us time to step back, and
examine the entire system of capital punishment in Texas. If we do not fix
the system, we will soon find out that we have executed an entirely innocent
person. Right now there are several people on death row in Texas with
credible claims of innocence."

"There are people on death row in Texas who even the Texas Attorney General
John Cornyn believes should be given a new sentencing trial since they were
sentenced to death in part because of testimony by a prosecution witness
that they pose a continuing threat to society because of their race. I am
talking about the case of Victor Saldano. The Texas Court of Criminal
Appeals has said such racially biased testimony does not matter, but we
Texans know it does matter. We can not have a system where people are
sentenced to death because of the color of their skin and not because of the
facts of their cases," said Cobb.

According to TMN’s webpage, "The death penalty is applied with severe
racial and economic bias. We are executing juveniles and people with mental
retardation and it is much more expensive than a life without parole
sentence. Common sense demands that we stop executions and conduct a
comprehensive review of the system. The Texas Moratorium Network is calling
for an immediate moratorium on executions so that these serious questions
about the application of the death penalty can be reviewed."
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