Texas

Texas

EDITORIALS: Expanding Conservative Concerns About the Death Penalty

A recent editorial in the Dallas Morning News highlighted the voices of prominent conservatives who now oppose capital punishment, including former Texas Congressman Ron Paul and conservative political leader Richard Viguerie. The paper noted the new partnership between the student-centered organization Young Americans for Liberty and Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. The editorial described why one Texas conservative, Pat Monks, a Republican precinct chairman in Harris County (Houston), changed his mind on the death penalty: "Ultimately .... [t]he impossibility of eradicating human error from the system hit home to him.... he came to see no deterrent value for a punishment that’s imposed unevenly at an intolerable expense to the public.” Read the full editorial below.

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Denies New Hearing for Duane Buck

In a 6-3 decision on November 20, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied a request from death row inmate Duane Buck for a new sentencing hearing, despite the fact that racially prejudicial statements had been made during his trial. While the jury was being asked to consider if Buck would be a future danger to society, a psychologist testified that African Americans commit a disproportionate number of criminal offenses. Buck's case was one of seven identified in 2000 by then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn in which testimony linking race to future dangerousness was impermissibly used. The other six defendants received new sentencing hearings, but Buck did not because his case was still in the early stages of appeal. Three judges dissented, writing, "The record in this case reveals a chronicle of inadequate representation at every stage of the proceedings, the integrity of which is further called into question by the admission of racist and inflammatory testimony from an expert witness at the punishment stage." Buck's attorneys said they will appeal: "We will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the important due process and equal protection issues at stake in Mr. Buck’s case, and we are hopeful that the Supreme Court will intervene to right this unequivocal wrong," they said.

Ohio Execution Stayed at 11th Hour to Consider Inmate Organ Donation

On November 13 Ohio Governor John Kasich stayed the execution of Ronald Phillips less than 24 hours before he was to be die by lethal injection in order to consider Phillips' request to donate a kidney to his mother. Kasich stated, “I realize this is a bit of uncharted territory for Ohio, but if another life can be saved by his willingness to donate his organs and tissues then we should allow for that to happen.” Medical experts will now have time to determine whether Phillips would be a suitable donor for his mother, who is on dialysis, and other implications of the donation can be considered. In 1995, Delaware death-row inmate Steven Shelton was allowed to donate a kidney to his mother. His death sentence was later reversed for other reasons. However, in Florida, Joseph Brown was not allowed to donate a kidney to his brother, who later died. Brown was freed from death row after being exonerated in 1987. Phillips also offered to donate his heart to his sister after he was executed, but donations of vital organs have not been allowed during U.S. executions because of ethical issues. Texas allows general prisoners to donate non-vital organs, but not those on death row.

Federal Court to Review Florida's Unique Execution Procedure

A federal court in Florida will review challenges to the state's new lethal injection procedure, which the state plans to use in an upcoming execution on November 12. Florida is the only state in the country to use this new protocol, which begins with the sedative midazolam, followed by a paralytic drug and potassium chloride. Attorneys for Florida death row inmates allege the process could result in severe pain in violation of the 8th Amendment. Megan McCracken, an attorney at the death penalty clinic at the University of California Berkeley School of Law, said, “If [potassium chloride is] given to a conscious person who has been inadequately anesthetized, it causes incredible pain because it activates nerve endings. It will feel like burning through the circulatory system until it reaches the heart, which it stops.” Florida switched to midazolam due to a shortage of pentobarbital, an anesthetic used in almost all executions over the past 2 years. Texas, which also has an execution scheduled for November 12, has obtained pentobarbital from a compounding pharmacy. It employs only 1 drug in its executions. Ohio recently announced it will use a new protocol involving midazolam and hydromorphone in its execution scheduled for November 14. That procedure is also under review in federal court.

OP-ED: "Changes are long overdue for Texas' clemency process"

Michael Morton (pictured), who was released after 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, called for reforms in Texas's clemency process. In a recent op-ed in the Houston Chronicle, Morton and Scheck highlighted the case of Cameron Willingham, who was executed in 2004 despite serious doubts about his guilt.  According to the authors, it is now understood that investigators who believed that Willingham committed arson were mistaken.  They also noted that a recent investigation uncovered that a recantation made by a witness who initially claimed that Willingham confessed to the crime was never made available to Willingham's lawyers or placed in the court file. Morton and Scheck wrote, "The clemency process that failed to discover Willingham's innocence in 2004 remains essentially unchanged. A recent study by a committee of the American Bar Association found that the Board of Pardons and Paroles' consideration of capital cases is woefully inadequate - Texas does not meet any of the eleven minimum guidelines for an adequate process." They concluded, "No one can endorse a system that allows the execution of an innocent person. And we need to do everything in our power to make sure that the Board of Pardons and Paroles, the last stop in our criminal justice system, has the resources and the procedures necessary to do its job." Read full text of the op-ed below.

LETHAL INJECTION: Many States Changing Lethal Injection Process

On October 4, Ohio announced it will be obtaining its execution drug, pentobarbital, from a compounding pharmacy if it is not available from the manufacturer. Texas made a similar announcement a few days earler. In the past, some compounding pharmacies have been implicated in providing contaminated drugs with fatal side effects. These local companies are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Florida announced it will be using a new drug, midazolam, in its October 15 execution. The drug will be part of a 3-drug process and has never been used before in executions. The 3-drug process can be extremely painful if the first drug is not completely effective. Missouri intends to be the first state in the country to use the drug propofol in its October 23 execution, despite the fact that the drug company that delivered the drug has asked for its return. If Missouri goes ahead with the execution, European countries may impose restrictions on the exportation of this drug, thereby affecting other uses for vital surgeries in the U.S.  Finally, Tennessee will now use only a single drug, pentobarbital, in its executions, though it did not say where it hoped to obtain the drug.

STUDIES: ABA Criticizes Texas Death Penalty in Latest Report

On September 18, the American Bar Association's Death Penalty Due Process Review Project released its latest report, focusing on the fairness and accuracy of Texas’s death penalty system. The report found: “In many areas, Texas appears out of step with better practices implemented in other capital jurisdictions, fails to rely upon scientifically reliable methods and processes in the administration of the death penalty, and provides the public with inadequate information to understand and evaluate capital punishment in the state.” (Exec. Sum.) The assessment made several recommendations to help prevent wrongful convictions and improve due process, including requiring the indefinite preservation of biological evidence in violent crimes, abandoning the law's emphasis on predicting the “future dangerousness” of the defendant in deciding death sentences, and enacting appropriate statutes to deal with capital defendants with intellectual disabilities and severe mental illness. The report commended Texas on recent improvements to their justice system such as better lineup procedures, disclosure of police reports to the defense, and the establishment of two defender offices to provide capital representation throughout the state. The assessment team included Professor Jennifer Laurin from the University of Texas School of Law (Chair) and former Texas Governor Mark White.

MENTAL ILLNESS: Texas High Court Strikes Down Forcible Medication of A Death Row Inmate

On September 11, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held (5-4) that a trial court illegally ordered the forcible medication of a mentally ill death row inmate for the purpose of rendering him competent to be executed. The case involves Steven Staley, whose mental health began to deteriorate when he entered death row in 1991. He received an execution date in 2006, but was deemed too ill to be executed. A court ordered that his paranoid schizophrenia be treated by forcible medication, which continued for six years. In its ruling, the CCA held that “the evidence conclusively shows that appellant's competency to be executed was achieved solely through the involuntary medication, which the trial court had no authority to order under the competency-to-be-executed statute. The finding that appellant is competent must be reversed for lack of any evidentiary support.” The ruling did not address whether the state constitution forbids the execution of someone forcibly drugged or whether the defendant in this case is too ill to be executed at all. Read full text of the ruling here.

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