Texas

Texas

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.

Rare Execution of a Woman Approaching in Texas

On February 5, Texas is scheduled to execute Suzanne Basso. Basso would become the 14th woman executed in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Basso is confined to a wheel chair and has a history of mental illness. Basso was convicted of murdering a mentally disabled man, ostensibly for insurance money. Others convicted in the offense did not receive the death penalty. A recent article in the Arizona Republic noted an unusually high number of captial prosecutions in that state. There are 2 women on Arizona's death row and 3 more are facing capital trials or re-trials. Elizabeth Rapaport, a law professor at the University of New Mexico, explained the low number of women on death row nationally: “The death penalty is mostly about crimes against strangers. That really frightens people,” she said. Those crimes often include rapes and robberies, “and women just don’t do those kind of crimes.”

STUDIES: Exonerations for Crimes Reaches High in 2013

According to a new report released on February 4 by the National Registry of Exonerations, 87 people had their criminal convictions dismissed in 2013, the most for any year in the Registry, which begins with 1989. Those exonerated last year included Reginald Griffin, who had been sentenced to death in Missouri 30 years ago. Griffin became the 143rd person on DPIC's Innocence List, which includes those exonerated from death row since 1973. The National Registry has recorded 1,304 exonerations since 1989. Of those exonerated in 2013, 31% were in cases where no crime actually occurred; 17% occurred in cases in which the defendant had pled guilty. Texas led the country with the most exonerations (13). Samuel Gross, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School and author of the report, noted the impact of wrongful convictions on defendants: "They've lost 10 years, or in some cases, 30-some years of their life. Their children have grown up if they had children, their spouse may have left them, their parents may have died, they have no skills. For many people, the destruction that has occurred is irreparable."

Correctional Officers' Union Calls for Improving Death Row Conditions

Prison officials in Texas are reviewing policies currently requiring all death row inmates to be isolated one to a cell for 23 hours a day. Executions in Texas are carried out in Huntsville, and the local chapter of the correctional officers' union supports changing death-row practices. Chapter president Lance Lowry said, “The correctional officers and taxpayers would benefit from an easing of the current policies. Most death row offenders could be housed two to a cell. Some of them could be given work privileges and allowed to watch TV. An inmate who has nothing to lose is a dangerous inmate.” Jeanne Woodford, a former warden of California's San Quentin prison, which houses the country's largest death row, agreed, “When inmates are permanently and automatically housed in highly restrictive environments — as they are in Texas — it is more difficult to control their behavior. To make matters worse, complete idleness breeds mental illness, causing inmates to act out and putting correctional officers at risk.” The correctional officers' union is one of a dozen organizations that support easing the restrictions. The others include mental health organizations, the Texas Defender Service, and several religious groups. The coalition is asking prison officials to allow death row inmates contact visits with family members, communal recreation, religious services, and work assignments.

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