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.
The Chief Justice of California's Supreme Court, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, said recently that she does not expect executions in California to resume for at least three years because of problems with the lethal injection process. California has already not carried out an execution in seven years. Justice Cantil-Sakauye said major structural changes to the state's death penalty are unlikely, and that a proposal by the former Chief Justice to speed death penalty appeals is "dead." That proposal would have had state appellate courts, rather than the California Supreme Court, handle appeals in capital cases. Such a change would require a constitutional amendment and greater funding for appellate courts. Those proposals have failed in the past. Californians narrowly defeated (52-48%) a ballot initiative to repeal the death penalty and put some of the money saved into solving cold cases. The state is spending an estimated $180 million per year on the death penalty.
In a recent op-ed in Colorado's Daily Camera, Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett expressed his concerns about the death penalty, as the state prepares to consider its repeal. Garnett said, "[T]he practical problems with the death penalty make it of limited relevance to Colorado law enforcement." He pointed to the high costs of capital cases, the time required to prosecute, and the randomness of its application as major concerns: "Prosecuting a death penalty case through a verdict in the trial court can cost the prosecution well over $1 million dollars .... my total operating budget for this office is $4.6 million and with that budget we prosecute 1,900 felonies, per year." He estimated that the appellate costs are even greater--up to $18 million through all the appeals. Geographic disparities in applying Colorado's death penalty raise questions of fairness: "Though Boulder County has had plenty of heinous murders over the years, there has never been a death verdict imposed here in the nearly 140 years since statehood," he wrote. Meanwhile, he noted, counties with similar crimes have a number of pending capital cases. Read the entire op-ed below.
In a recent op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, death penalty scholar Franklin Zimring suggested that the close (52-48%) vote in November on California’s Proposition 34 to end capital punishment means the repeal effort is far from over. Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote, “For decades, it has been assumed that the death penalty was the third rail of California politics …. Measured against that reputation, the narrowly divided electorate on Prop. 34 is quite a surprise." He suggested two traditional ways--other than another referendum--that capital punishment might be abolished. One way involves a finding by the courts that California's law is unconstitutional: "A federal court has been considering whether the current California laundry list of aggravating circumstances is too promiscuous to meet minimum constitutional standards. If this current grab bag is struck down, the California Legislature then would have to consider whether and how to write a new death penalty statute. After courts struck down state statutes in New York and Massachusetts, the legislatures of each state decided the best course was no death penalty." A second alternative would be for the governor to declare a moratorium on executions, followed at a later time by complete abolition. Zimring concluded, “Whatever the endgame for state execution in California, the saga of 2012's Prop. 34 will have been an important step toward an outcome that now looks inevitable on the near horizon.” Read full op-ed below.
A recent editorial in The Oregonian, one of the state's major newspapers, endorsed a bill in the upcoming legislative session that could result in the repeal of the death penalty. The bill, to be introduced by Rep. Mitch Greenlick, would begin the process of amending the state's constitution through a referendum as early as November 2014. The editors wrote, "5 states -- New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois and New Mexico -- have abandoned the death penalty in recent years. Advances in DNA testing, combined with dogged advocacy work, have startled the public into realizing that dozens of innocent people have been wrongly sentenced to die based on faulty evidence and poor legal defense. Oregon has grown more liberal since its last vote on capital punishment about three decades ago, and it's possible to picture Oregon joining the ranks of the abolitionists." Read full editorial below.
New Hampshire State Representative Renny Cushing (pictured), whose father and brother-in-law were murdered, is one of many members of the state's legislature who supports repeal of the death penalty. "Everyone is moving away from the death penalty. It’s clear New Hampshire isn’t in love with the death penalty. We haven’t executed anyone since 1939," Cushing said. New Hampshire's only death row inmate currently has an appeal before the state Supreme Court. A death penalty abolition bill passed the New Hampshire House in 2009, but was vetoed by the Governor. Governor-elect Maggie Hassan said she opposed expanding the death penalty and is expected to sign a repeal bill if it passes the legislature. Past efforts to end the death penalty in New Hampshire have crossed party lines. Republican Rep. Steve Vaillancourt sponsored a repeal bill in 2000 and has taken preliminary measures to abolish the death penalty this year. "New Hampshire’s a really strong libertarian state. There is a strong element in the state that doesn’t trust the government to collect taxes and plow roads," Cushing said. "And it certainly doesn’t want to give the government the power to kill people."
A Texas Court of Inquiry is set to review allegations of prosecutorial misconduct by former District Attorney Kenneth Anderson, who withheld critical information in a first-degree murder case in Williamson County. Although prosecutorial misconduct has played a role in many wrongful convictions, including death penalty cases, such an oversight hearing is unusual. Sam Millsap, the former District Attorney of Bexar County, Texas, said, "I’d love to be able to tell you I am the only former elected prosecutor in the country who finds himself in the position of having to admit an error in judgment that may have led to the execution of an innocent man, but I know I am not." If the Court finds that Anderson's alleged misconduct rises to the level of a crime, the case may be referred to a grand jury. Anderson, who is now a Texas judge, presided over the prosecution of Michael Morton (pictured), who was convicted and sentenced to life for his wife's murder in 1987. Evidence suggesting Morton's innocence, including a bloody bandana found near the crime scene, was kept from the defense. DNA testing of the bandana led to Morton's exoneration in 2011, and implicated another man who is also suspected of subsequently murdering another woman. Anderson's successor as D.A., John Bradley, who fought against allowing DNA testing in Morton's case, has said he now believes he was wrong, adding, "We shouldn’t set up barriers to the introduction of new evidence."
Conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly (pictured) of Fox News recently endorsed California's Proposition 34, the ballot initiative that would replace the death penalty with life in prison without the possibility of parole. O'Reilly joined many conservative supporters of the measure, including Ron Briggs, who led the campaign to reinstate California's death penalty in 1978. In an op-ed about O'Reilly's endorsement, Briggs discussed the conservative argument for repeal, calling the death penalty "a fiscal disaster" and raising concerns about innocence and the effects on victims' families. He explained why the death penalty has cost California $4 billion and said the death penalty system is "light years away from the conservative mantra of 'smaller, smarter, simpler' government." He urged conservatives to support the alternative of life without parole, saying, "Life in prison without parole keeps our families safe and provides legal finality for victims. It also holds criminals accountable by making them work and pay restitution to the victims’ compensation instead of enjoying super star status on death row." Read full op-ed below.
On October 17, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, a state agency that enforces civil rights, unanimously passed a resolution in favor of ending the death penalty. The Commission urged the Kentucky General Assembly to repeal the death penalty and Governor Steven Beshear to sign any such legislation that is brought before him. The resolution underscored the unfairness of capital punishment: “[S]tatistics confirm that the imposition of the death penalty is disproportionately imposed on minorities and the poor." Moreover, the resolution pointed to the high error rate in Kentucky capital cases: "Since 1976, when Kentucky reinstated the death penalty, 50 of the 78 people sentenced to death have had their death sentence or conviction overturned, due to misconduct or serious errors that occurred during their trial. This represents an unacceptable error rate of more than 60 percent.” The resolution will be given to each legislator and to the governor.
George Gascon served for 30 years as a police officer, including as a police chief in Arizona and California. He is currently the District Attorney of San Francisco. Although he formerly supported the death penalty, he now believes it should be replaced with life without parole. In a recent op-ed in the Sacramento Bee, Gascon wrote: “I have had the opportunity to observe and participate in the development and implementation of public safety policies at every level. I have seen what works and what does not in making communities safe. Given my experience, I believe there are three compelling reasons why the death penalty should be replaced. (1) The criminal justice system makes mistakes and the possibility of executing innocent people is both inherently wrong and morally reprehensible; (2) My personal experience and crime data show the death penalty does not reduce crime; and (3) The death penalty wastes precious resources that could be best used to fight crime and solve thousands of unsolved homicides languishing in filing cabinets in understaffed police departments across the state." He concluded the death penalty is "fatally flawed" and "broken beyond repair.” Read the full op-ed below.