NEW VOICES: Former Texas District Attorneys Say Legislature Should "Seriously Reconsider the Death Penalty"

In a recent op-ed in the Houston Chronicle, former Texas District Attorneys Grant Jones and Sam Millsap (pictured) encouraged the state legislature to reconsider the death penalty. "Both of us have been involved in the execution of men who may well have been innocent," they said, mentioning three cases that "raise serious doubts about the wisdom of continuing the death penalty." Two of the cases, those of Carlos DeLuna and Ruben Cantu, involved possible eyewitness errors. In the third case, Cameron Willingham was executed for setting the house fire that killed his daughters, but new evidence suggests the fire was accidental. Jones and Millsap said Texas is part of a "nationwide trend away from the death penalty" and that "Texans are less willing to take the risk of executing people who are innocent. You see it when they sit on juries. Death sentences in Texas have dropped more than 75 percent since 2002 and remain near historic lows in 2012." They concluded that recent reforms "make the system more accurate, but no one argues that they will catch every mistake....The professionals who administer our justice system cannot guarantee that they will never be without fault." Read the entire op-ed below.

(G. Jones and S. Millsap, "Legislature should seriously reconsider the death penalty," Houston Chronicle, December 13, 2012). See New Voices and Innocence.

Legislature should seriously reconsider the death penalty

As district attorneys in the 1980s, we believed that the death penalty was the best punishment for certain crimes. We no longer believe that today. We haven't gone soft. We have come face to face with some hard truths. Both of us have been involved in the execution of men who may well have been innocent.

This year, an investigation by a law school revealed that eyewitnesses might have mistaken Carlos DeLuna, who was executed for murder in 1989, for another man, also named Carlos. The two men bore such a strong resemblance that even family members mistook photographs of one man for the other. No one will ever know for sure whether a mistake was made, but cases like DeLuna's raise serious doubts about the wisdom of continuing the death penalty.

Long after Ruben Cantu was put to death in 1993, an investigation by this newspaper persuasively argued that he was wrongfully convicted and executed. Two decades after the trial, the only eyewitness recanted his testimony and explained that he felt pressured by the police to identify Cantu as the shooter. This witness had nothing to gain by changing his position.

As long as human beings are in charge, there will be mistakes. Even people who are hardworking, and acting in good faith, make mistakes. In most criminal cases, the appeals process is there to identify and remedy errors. But the problem with the death penalty is that once it is carried out, there is no way to go back and fix a mistake.

Family members of Cameron Willingham know this fact all too well. This year, they petitioned the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant him a posthumous pardon. Willingham was executed in 2004 for setting a house fire that killed his children, but new evidence shows that the fire was accidental and he was almost certainly innocent.

There are signs that Texans are less willing to take the risk of executing people who are innocent. You see it when they sit on juries. Death sentences in Texas have dropped more than 75 percent since 2002 and remain near historic lows in 2012.

In fact, only 22 of 254 Texas counties have imposed death sentences over the last five years, according to a new report by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. From a budget standpoint, this means the significant financial burden of the death penalty is generated by a small minority, but paid for by all taxpayers.

Our state is part of a nationwide trend away from the death penalty. Last year, the number of death sentences across the country dropped below 100 for the first time since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976. Five states in five years have ended the death penalty, including our neighbors in New Mexico. By every measure, the death penalty is being used less and less.

In recent years, the Texas Legislature has passed important reforms to address the causes of wrongful convictions. We have improved eyewitness identification procedures, expanded access to post-conviction DNA testing and done more to ensure that poor defendants have competent lawyers. These measures make the system more accurate, but no one argues that they will catch every mistake.

TV shows like "CSI" have led to the misconception that DNA technology prevents the conviction of the wrong person. Without a doubt, whenever DNA exists, it should be tested. What few people realize is that only a small fraction of cases involve the type of evidence that can be subjected to DNA testing.

Next month, when the legislators convene for a new session, they should seriously reconsider the death penalty. A sentence of life without parole - that is, without any possibility of release under any circumstances - keeps society safe while eliminating the chance of an irreversible mistake.

The professionals who administer our justice system cannot guarantee that they will never be without fault. Once we accept that fact, we have to ask ourselves, as a civilized society, whether we can live with a system that promises nothing more than to get it right most of the time in death penalty cases. We submit that we cannot.

Jones served as district attorney for Nueces, Kleberg and Kenedy counties from 1983 to 1991; Millsap served as district attorney for Bexar County from 1982 to 1987.