Texas

Texas

A Turn-Around in Texas's Use of Death Penalty

A recent op-ed by Jordan Steiker, endowed professor of law and Director of the Capital Punishment Center at the University of Texas, highlighted the declining use of the death penalty in that state. AlthoughTexas leads the nation in executions, death sentences and executions per year have dropped sharply since the 1990s. Prof. Steiker wrote, "In 1999, Texas juries returned an astounding 48 death sentences. Since 2008, however, Texas has annually sent fewer than 10 defendants to death row.  Executions in Texas have declined as well, from a high of 40 in 2000 to fewer than 20 since 2010." While describing the "perfect storm" of conditions that led to Texas's high use of capital punishment in the past, the op-ed also noted changes that have led to less death-penalty use, such as the creation of a statewide defender's office to represent death-sentenced inmates in state post-conviction and the broader disclosure of evidence to the accused. Prosecutors have increasingly accepted plea agreements to life imprisonment without possibility of parole, saving taxpayer dollars that would have been spent on expensive capital trials and appeals.

Recent Lethal Injection Developments in Texas, Missouri, and Indiana

As states continue to seek alternative drugs and drug sources for lethal injections, three significant developments occurred last week. Indiana announced recently that they would use Brevital, an anesthetic, as the first drug in its three-drug protocol. On May 27, Par Pharmaceutical, the producer of Brevital, released a statement announcing efforts to prevent the use of their product in executions. The statement said, "The state of Indiana’s proposed use is contrary to our mission. Par is working with its distribution partners to establish distribution controls on Brevital® to preclude wholesalers from accepting orders from departments of correction." On May 29, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster gave a speech in which he suggested that the state of Missouri begin producing execution drugs. Missouri has had difficulty obtaining lethal injection drugs and faced challenges to its lethal injection secrecy law. Koster said that state production of the drugs would increase transparency, adding, "As a matter of policy, Missouri should not be reliant on merchants whose identities must be shielded from public view or who can exercise unacceptable leverage over this profound state act.” Missouri would be the first state to set up a state-operated lab for producing execution drugs. In Texas, Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an order defending secrecy for lethal injection drug sources. The statement represents a reversal for the Attorney General, who had previously rejected arguments from the Department of Criminal Justice that secrecy was necessary.

Texas Execution Stayed Over Intellectual Disability Claim

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit stayed the execution of Robert Campbell just hours before he was scheduled to be executed in Texas on May 13, granting him permission to file a new petition on his claim of mental retardation. If Campbell is intellectually disabled, he is barred from execution by the Supreme Court's 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia. The unanimous three-judge panel noted that Texas authorities had withheld IQ test results from Campbell and misled his attorneys: "Throughout this litigation in the state and federal courts regarding Campbell’s ability to assert an Atkins claim on the merits, the State never disclosed that it was in possession of evidence of three intelligence tests suggesting that Campbell was intellectually disabled." State files contained the results of IQ tests including one from Campbell's childhood, with a score of 68, and one from shortly after his arrival on death row at age 19, with a score of 71. Robert Owen, an attorney for Campbell, said, "It’s very clear now that the evidence strongly supports the diagnosis of mental retardation for Mr. Campbell, and it might be best for everyone for the state to give up its pursuit of executing him and resolve this case by reducing his death sentence to life imprisonment rather than face the prospect of months or years of further litigation."

Support for Death Penalty Declines in Houston, Texas, As Population Diversifies

SUPPORT AMONG HOUSTON RESIDENTS FOR ALTERNATIVES TO DEATH PENALTY

A recent survey by the Kinder Institute of Houston, Texas, found that more than two-thirds (69%) of area residents preferred alternative sentences over the death penalty, and that number is growing as the population becomes more diverse. The survey asked whether persons convicted of first-degree murder should receive a death sentence, life in prison without parole, or life with the possibility of parole after 25 years. Only 28% of respondents chose the death penalty. Life without parole was the most popular option, receiving 39% support, while life with the possibility of parole was second with 29%. Just four years ago, combined support for alternative sentences was only 54%. The Kinder report noted that in the past three decades the Houston area has been transformed "into the most ethnically and culturally diverse large metropolitan region in the nation." Whites now constitute a minority in every age demographic except those 65 and older. This growing diversity may be a factor in changing attitudes about the death penalty, as public opinion polls consistently show lower support for the death penalty among blacks and Latinos than among whites. In the past, Harris County (Houston) had produced more executions than any other U.S. county, but in recent years there has been a dramatic decline in death sentences.

Supreme Court to Review Death Penalty Case Involving Ineffective Representation

On March 24, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in Jennings v. Stephens (No. 13-7211), a Texas death penalty case involving ineffectiveness of counsel. In his request for federal relief from his death sentence, Robert Jennings cited three instances in which his trial lawyers failed to adequately represent him. A U.S. District Court granted him relief on two of those claims (including failure to present evidence of his mental problems), while denying the third (his own lawyers told the jury they agreed he was eligible for the death penalty). Texas appealed the District Court's grant of relief on the first two claims to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which then held they could not consider Jennings' third claim of ineffective representation because his lawyers failed to file formal appeal papers on that claim. Jennings' attorneys maintain that no such filing was required since the Fifth Circuit was already reviewing the general issue of ineffectiveness of counsel at the state's request. The case may be set for argument in the fall.

NEW RESOURCES: Latest "Death Row, USA" Now Available

The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row, USA shows the total death row population continuing to decline in size. The U.S. death-row population decreased from 3,108 on April 1, 2013, to 3,095 on July 1, 2013. The new total represented a 12% decrease from 10 years earlier, when the death row population was 3,517. The states with the largest death rows were California (733), Florida (412), Texas (292), Pennsylvania (197), and Alabama (197). In the past 10 years, the size of Texas's death row has shrunk 36%; Pennsylvania's death row has declined 18%; on the other hand, California's death row has increased 17% in that time. The report also contains racial breakdowns on death row. The states with the highest percentage of minorities on death row were Delaware (78%) and Texas (71%), among those states with at least 10 inmates. The total death row population was 43% white, 42% black, 13% Latino, and 2% other races.

New Evidence Points to Possible Execution of an Innocent Man

New evidence in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham suggests Texas may have executed an innocent man in 2004. The key evidence presented against Willingham at trial was from an arson "expert," who said the fire that killed Willingham's children was intentionally set. That evidence has since been discredited by a series of other experts who concluded the evidence did not support arson. Now attorneys for the Innocence Project have uncovered a prosecutor's note implying that a jailhouse informant--who testified Willingham admitted to the crime--was given preferential treatment in exchange for his testimony. The note indicated charges against the informant should be reduced "based on coop in Willingham." Prosecutors had explicitly denied that a deal had been made with the witness. Barry Scheck, founder of the Innocence Project, called the new evidence a "smoking pistol," and added, “We’re reaching out to the principals to see if there is an innocent explanation for this. I don’t see one.”

BOOKS: "The Wrong Carlos" Argues Texas Executed an Innocent Man

One of the strongest accounts pointing to the execution of a probably innocent man in recent times concerns the case of Carlos DeLuna, who was executed in Texas in 1989. In a forthcoming book, The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution, Professor James Liebman of Columbia Law School describes his investigation into the case, along with a team of students. The investigation uncovered serious problems in DeLuna's case, including faulty eyewitness testimony and the police's failure to investigate another potential suspect. DeLuna maintained his innocence and said another man, Carlos Hernandez, committed the crime. Hernandez and DeLuna looked so similar that their own families mistook photos of the men for each other. Moreover, Hernandez had a history of violent crimes like the one for which DeLuna was executed. The book and its accompanying website provide evidence of a grave mistake with police and witness records, trial transcripts, photographs, and more. The Wrong Carlos will be released in July 2014 but is available for pre-order now.

Pages