As the Texas legislative session came to a close, criminal justice reform advocates gave lawmakers a failing grade for their work in addressing problems in the state's legal system. Senator Rodney Ellis of Houston joined an array of legal experts to criticize the state legislators' inability to pass measures to end the execution of juvenile offenders, to strengthen the consular notification process for foreign nationals, and to require the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to hold a hearing when addressing clemency matters in a capital case. The advocates also chastised failed attempts to pass bills to allow the governor to issue multiple 30-day execution reprieves, to create an innocence commission to review and investigate the Texas death penalty and wrongful convictions, to offer the sentencing alternative of life without the possibility of parole, and to require a trial judge to determine if a defendant is mentally retarded before the trial of a capital case. Ellis noted that the only successful measure passed by the legislature was a bill mandating the temporary release of 12 Tulia residents who had been convicted during a controversial drug sting in 1999. The only evidence used to convict them was the later-discredited testimony of an undercover narcotics officer. While vowing to continue his fight for meaningful criminal justice reform, Ellis said, "There are problems in Texas. How many other Tulias are out there that we don't know about?"
Charles B. Blackmar, senior judge of Missouri's Supreme Court from 1982-1992, recently called for consideration of abolishing the death penalty. In a letter to the editor that appeared in the Kansas City Star, Blackmar stated:
The Legislative Coordinating Council of Kansas, a group of legislative leaders who represent the Kansas legislature when it's not in session, recently authorized committees to study three aspects of the state's capital punishment law this summer. Among the topics under review are the cost of imposing the death penalty, the state's funding of the Board of Indigents' Defense Services and its Death Penalty Unit, and the effectiveness of laws to ensure that mentally ill defendants are not executed. The cost study won't begin until the legislative auditors complete a review of the costs of prosecuting death penalty cases, which is excepted to begin this month. The study results for all three reviews will be given to legislators during their 2004 session.
The ACLU Capital Punishment Project recently released "Three Decades Later: Why We Need A Temporary Halt on Executions," a report that comes just over 30 years after the Supreme Court's Furman v. Georgia decision that placed a temporary halt on executions because the death penalty was being applied in an arbitrary, discriminatory, and capricious manner. While the Supreme Court upheld state capital punishment statutes written after Furman in its 1976 Gregg v. Georgia decision, the report notes that questions of fairness remain. In its report, the ACLU calls for a temporary halt to executions to give states the chance to review these concerns, including issues such as wrongful convictions, inadequate representation, geographic disparity, and racial and socioeconomic bias. Read the report.
The American Bar Association (ABA) has voiced support for legislation to impose a two-year moratorium on executions in North Carolina while the state studies its death penalty. In its announcement, the ABA noted a "growing consensus within the legal community that North Carolina urgently needs a moratorium on executions until it evaluates issues of fairness, due process and possible racial bias in its death penalty system." The bill, which was recently passed by the North Carolina Senate, is currently under consideration by members of the state's House of Representatives. The ABA has also called for a national moratorium on executions until the death penalty is studied and procedural flaws are fixed.
Houston Police Chief C.O. Bradford said that criminal defendants in Texas are at the mercy of prosecutors in an unfair system that emphasizes winning rather than justice. Bradford said that he believes there is sufficient probable cause to convene a court of inquiry to investigate the entire Police Department crime lab, not just the DNA portion (see below). Bradford also voiced support for changes that would help to balance the Texas justice system, which he believes currently works in favor of prosecutors. He described the attitude in the district attorney's office as, "What can I do to win? Win, win, win." Bradford supports measures such as an open discovery process in criminal trails and standardizing the appointment of forensics experts to assist court-appointed attorneys in cases with DNA evidence."
As Kansas lawmakers struggle to make ends meet, some are calling for an examination of the costs associated with capital punishment. Senators Steve Morris and Anthony Hensley have opposing views on the death penalty, but the men recently joined forces to propose an audit of the state's death penalty. Among other items, the audit will review $9 million in expenses filed by the Board of Indigents' Defense Services between 1995-2002. The funding was used to defend those facing capital charges. While Hensley opposes capital punishment and Morris voted to reinstate the death penalty in 1994, both believe that now is the time to examine the costs and effectiveness of capital punishment and to consider other less expensive options. Morris, a Republican, noted, "Overall, we just need to evaluate the whole death penalty issue. If it's going to take millions and millions of dollars per inmate and years before we can execute someone, that's a major policy issue we need to look at."
An editorial by Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, past president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, notes that crime labs are overwhelmingly backlogged with work and that deficiencies of personnel, space and equipment in forensic science labs often lead to shoddy practices and erroneous test results, as recently exemplified by the problems uncovered at the Houston Police Department DNA lab (see below). Dr. Wecht notes:
There can be little doubt in the minds of trained, experienced forensic scientists that testing defects, backlog pressures, inadequately qualified personnel, and prosecutorial bias exist in many other DNA labs even though they have not yet been uncovered and publicly reported.
Until these glaring deficiencies are identified, objectively reviewed, and carefully corrected, society cannot expect that justice will be served.
State lawmakers should carefully scrutinize DNA labs that use inferior testing methods that lead to inaccurate results. An immediate freeze on executions is essential until scrupulous federal and state reviews of all DNA labs have been accomplished. This is the only just way to proceed. Close attention to this critical problem will not only lower the risk of executing innocent people, it will also facilitate the capture and conviction of the guilty. (Emphasis added).