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.
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
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
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.
- Texas Moratorium Network (TMN) is a non-profit organization with the primary goal of mobilizing statewide support for a moratorium on executions in Texas. Significant death penalty reform in Texas, including a moratorium on executions, is a viable goal if the public is educated on the death penalty system and is encouraged to contact their elected representatives to urge passage of moratorium legislation.
We hope that you will join us in this fight for fairness and social justice.Please join our email list and become one of the more than 20,000 people receiving information through our network.