The death penalty in Texas is fraught with demonstrable error, and the people of the state seem more willing to deal with that fact than their leaders.
Events of the past year have convinced us that defendants have been executed on the basis of invalid evidence. They may or may not have been guilty, but the fact that we have convicted people based on faulty evidence leads inexorably to a horrible likelihood — that we have executed innocent people. The high number of death row prisoners eventually exonerated makes a strong case that other innocent but less fortunate prisoners have been wrongfully put to death.
We don’t lose sleep over the execution of guilty murderers. But the possible or probable execution of the innocent should trouble every Texan.
The freeing of Anthony Graves after 18 years in prison, many on death row, for a false murder conviction is only the most recent example of how badly the system is broken. His ordeal underlines how long the victims of wrongful death sentences must suffer in the cases where the errors are discovered before execution.
Two men, Cameron Todd Willingham, convicted of murder by arson, and Claude Jones, convicted of murder during a robbery, were executed on the basis of evidence later shown to be questionable or false.
We are heartened by figures showing that Texas and Harris County juries are sending fewer defendants to death row. Once known as the death penalty capital of the United States, Harris County has relinquished that grim title in recent years. If Texas were a nation, it would have been among the top state executioners in the world in past decades, in the company of judicial pariahs like China and Iran.
Since executions resumed in 1976, 464 have been carried out in Huntsville. Texas still led the nation in 2010 with 17 executions, more than twice the number of runner-up Ohio. This past year juries in Texas sentenced only eight people to die, while Harris County has had only two capital punishment sentences handed down.
Legal experts attribute the drop in death judgments to the availability of a life-without-parole statute passed by the Texas Legislature in 2005, and to the escalating costs to counties of the appeals process involving capital sentences. The exoneration of 11 Texas death row residents has undoubtedly made the public – and potential jury pools – more aware of the possibility that a death sentence could be an irreversible mistake.
Still, even as Texas juries show increased restraint in utilizing capital punishment, Texas elected officials – including most jurists – seem equally determined not to examine its flaws. When District Judge Kevin Fine attempted to conduct a hearing on the constitutionality of the death penalty as practiced in Texas, Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos first ordered her prosecutors to stand mute in court and then successfully appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to halt the hearing. More than 60 people, including former Texas Gov. Mark White, have filed a brief with the high court in support of allowing the death penalty hearing to go forward.
When the state Forensic Science Commission attempted to investigate whether Willingham was executed for the murder of his three children based on faulty arson evidence, Gov. Rick Perry replaced the commission chairman and several board members. A protracted and inconclusive investigation followed. An attempt by an Austin judge to conduct a hearing on the Willingham case has also been stymied by an appeals judge, who ruled that the jurist should have recused himself.
The accumulating evidence indicates that the current application of the death penalty in Texas involves an unacceptably high risk of killing innocent people. Yet even as the evidence of false convictions and wrongful executions piles up, only the participants at the base of the Texas criminal justice system, jury members, seem to be waking up to the reality of this evil.
Some opponents have called for a moratorium on executions in Texas until new, unspecified safeguards are in place to protect the innocent. Yet it’s difficult to imagine a fail-safe route to execution.
Besides, we already have the ultimate safeguard on the books: the sentence of life without parole. Spending the rest of one’s days in prison is as terrifying a deterrent to most people as quick execution. By ending state-sanctioned killing, in the future when a jury makes a mistake, resurrection won’t be required to remedy it.