Fr. John Lasseigne on the Death Penalty
(Nick Braune—-Mid Valley Town Crier)
Among the people I spoke with at the recent May Day labor rally in McAllen
was Father John Lasseigne, the pastor of St. John the Baptist Catholic
Church in San Juan. I usually move our conversations to capital
punishment, because I know the pastor is concerned about the issue, has a
law degree from Loyola University in New Orleans, and over the years has
made friends with two people on death row. Of course, I asked for an
Nick Braune: Executions have been stalled in Texas since last summer, as
authorities were waiting for the nations Supreme Court to rule on
execution practices in Kentucky. But just three weeks ago, the court
issued its decision. Could you tell my readers about that decision?
Fr. John Lasseigne: Yes. In the April case of Baze v. Rees, the U.S.
Supreme Court upheld Kentucky's lethal injection method. The method calls
for 3 drugs: one to produce unconsciousness, a 2nd to paralyze muscles,
and a third to cause cardiac arrest. Some 30 states use this same drug
A pair of Kentucky death row inmates challenged this procedure, presenting
scientific evidence that the 1st drug sometimes fails to produce complete
unconsciousness. The 3rd drug would then cause excruciating pain before
eventually killing the convict. The inmates called for execution by a
single, massive dose of barbiturates — the same method used to euthanize
But the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the constitution does not require
Kentucky to change its execution method. I fully expected this outcome.
Given the conservative bent of this Supreme Court, I did not think the
justices would sympathize much with an argument that murderers deserve a
less risky or less painful way to die.
The case, however, did produce one surprise. Justice John Paul Stevens
announced that he had finally come to the conclusion that the death
penalty is always unconstitutional. By his declaration Stevens joins a
very small group of justices who in Supreme Court history have shared that
Braune: I expect executions will start up soon again in Texas. Why do we
have so many more people on death row than other states?
Fr. John: Here are some reasons. For years, Texas jury instructions set a
low bar for death sentences. After finding the accused to be guilty, Texas
juries had only to answer two additional questions: did the defendant act
deliberately and was there a reasonable chance of him/her being dangerous
in the future.
After the jury answered yes to those 2 questions, the judge automatically
imposed a death sentence. Neither judge nor jury ever answered the deeper
question of whether the accused actually deserved to die. Mitigating
evidence such as mental retardation had no relevance to the death
In the 1989 case of Penry v. Lynaugh, the Supreme Court found Texas death
penalty sentencing guidelines to be unconstitutional — but only after
many hundreds of Texans had been sentenced under the flawed rule. The
ruling in Penry was not retroactive. Even after Penry, Texas juries in
capital cases still were given only 2 sentencing options: death or life
imprisonment with the possibility of parole. Although poll after poll
showed that juries wanted the option of life imprisonment without the
possibility of parole, that option became available only in 2005. Before
then some juries felt compelled to give death sentences against their best
There is another reason for so many people on death row: virtually all
judges in Texas are elected. The last thing an elected judge wants is for
a criminal who has appeared before his or her court to return to the
streets and commit a well-publicized murder. Favoring the prosecution is
an easy way for an elected judge to prevent that misfortune from
Braune: In presentations you have made on capital punishment, you spoke
about eyewitness testimony and false confessions. Could you go over that
Fr. John: Lawyers and psychologists know that eyewitness testimony is
frequently unreliable. At times of emotional distress such as a crime,
people's capacity to see accurately plummets. The passage of time takes
another toll on their ability to remember. Eyewitnesses tend to use freely
composed bits of "memory" to fill in the gaps.
And as for confessions, defendants confess to crimes they did not commit
for several reasons. They are subjected to brutal interrogations. The
police feed them details of the crime to make their confessions
believable. The defendants are told that if they confess they will make
life easier for their loved ones who also may be facing serious charges.
And the interrogations are not video-taped or even tape-recorded in most
states, so the defense has little evidence to prove that the confession
Braune: Thank you, Father John Lasseigne, for your comments.
(source: Texas Civil Rights Review)
Wrongly convicted gather at Texas Capitol to share stories
One by one, nine wrongly convicted men stood up on the floor of the Texas
Senate on Thursday to explain how innocent men ended up in prison and how
to prevent it from happening again.
"I'm here to tell you I lost everything. I am still hurting. I am still
broken," said James Giles, who spent 10 years in prison for a rape he did
not commit. "We can do better in the justice system. The system failed all
A week after a man who spent 27 years in prison became the 18th Dallas
County man since 2001 to have his conviction tossed aside after DNA
testing, state officials and men who lost years of their lives behind bars
met in the Capitol to discuss what they said was Texas' "disturbing number
of wrongful convictions."
The event was billed as the nation's first "Summit on Wrongful
Convictions." It brought together lawyers, police chiefs, judges and
lawmakers, who sought to identify systemic problems that could be
addressed through changes in law.
Since 2001, DNA testing has cleared 33 Texans who spent a combined 427
years in prison, according to The Justice Project, a Washington,
D.C.-based group. Eyewitness misidentification was a factor in 27 of those
cases, easily the most common link.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said he will sponsor a bill during
next year's legislative session that would mandate police departments use
specific procedures when presenting live lineups or photo arrays to
eyewitnesses. Several of the men who were wrongly convicted talked about
how an incorrect identification by an eyewitness was a key factor in their
Perhaps the most notorious case of bad eyewitness ID came from James
Waller, who was identified by a rape victim by his eyes and the sound of
The rapist in that case was described as being 5-foot-8. Waller, who is
6-foot-4, spent 10 years in prison.
Among the more intriguing reforms mentioned was a crime lab oversight
group that would have the same sort of authority health inspectors wield
at restaurants. Judge Barbara Hervey of the Texas Court of Criminal
Appeals referred to the idea as a pet project of hers, adding that Texas
would be the 1st state in the nation to enact such a plan.
Along the same lines was the idea of regional crime and DNA labs operated
independently of police departments, a topic broached by Houston Police
Chief Harold Hurtt. That idea was also favored by state Court of Criminal
Appeals Judge Cheryl Johnson, who acknowledged that crime labs run by
police departments can present conflicts.
Reforms in Dallas County also drew praise. Under District Attorney Craig
Watkins, Dallas has begun a program in which law students, supervised by
the Innocence Project of Texas, are reviewing hundreds of requests by
inmates for post-conviction DNA testing.
"It can be argued that Texas … may have one of the worst criminal
justice systems in this country," Watkins said. "We have to start where we
have the most problems."
Jeff Blackburn, the chief counsel for the Innocence Project of Texas, also
suggested overhauling how the courts deal with writs filed by inmates.
Blackburn pointed out that James Woodard, who was released last week, was
labeled an abuser of the system after filing 6 writs and 2 requests for
But the event's most powerful moments belonged to those who had been
exonerated. Billy Smith talked about how he considered suicide once or
twice a year during his 19-year prison stay for a rape he did not commit.
Waller spoke of his wife, who was eight months pregnant, dying in a car
accident on the way to one of his court hearings.
"I'm 52 years old and I have no kids," Waller said. "Texas took that away
The applause was loudest when Giles tore up his sex offender registration
card, something he had to carry for 15 years while he was on parole before
getting exonerated. He ripped it up, he said, because he had a new card to
carry: a voter registration card.
"You talk about being afraid, being scared, being locked up, going to
jail," Giles said. "That's a nightmare that sometimes you never overcome."
(source: Associated Press)
Exonerated inmates urge criminal justice changes in Texas
When Billy Smith and James Giles were languishing in Texas prisons for
crimes they knew they did not commit, they never dreamed that one day they
would be standing in the state Senate chamber pleading for reforms.
But Smith and Giles were among nine exonerated men who spoke Thursday at a
forum called to examine underlying causes of Texas' wrongful convictions
and what can be done to prevent them.
"You have the power. You have the pen," Smith told the assembled
legislators, judges, prosecutors and police chiefs.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who has sponsored criminal-justice
overhaul measures for years only to often see them fail, called on Gov.
Rick Perry and other state leaders to tackle the wrongful-conviction issue
He specifically called on Perry, Attorney General Greg Abbott and Texas
Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson to establish an Innocence
Commission to review and recommend changes.
"It is time to put some muscle behind legislative initiatives and best
practices that can be implemented without legislation," Ellis said.
DNA testing has exonerated 33 Texas inmates. Those inmates spent more than
427 years combined in prison.
About 100 people attended the round table organized by Ellis. Among them
were Texas Court of Criminal Appeals judges Cheryl Johnson and Barbara
Hervey, representing the state's highest criminal court.
State Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the powerful Criminal Justice
Committee, also attended, saying that he gets 300 letters a month from
inmates seeking help and that many of them have a valid complaint.
The Houston Democrat said what "keeps him up at night" is that Harris
County sends the most people to prison and to death row.
"Nothing is more important than clearing the wrongfully convicted," he
Sitting front and center in the chamber were the nine exonerated men. One
at a time, they went to the lectern to tell how they were wrongfully
convicted through prosecutorial misconduct, faulty eyewitness statements
and ineffective legal representation.
They begged the officials to find a way to return integrity to the court
Smith is one of 17 men convicted in Dallas County who has since been
exonerated. He spent more than 19 years in prison after being wrongfully
convicted of rape.
His case was based wholly on witness identification. DNA testing led to
his release in 2006.
Smith said that while in prison he sometimes considered suicide. He now
considers himself a victim.
"It's going to happen again. Our legislature. Our district attorneys.
Those in power are failing us," Smith said.
Giles, also of Dallas County, was wrongfully convicted of a 1982 rape
based on a faulty photo lineup and witness identification. He spent 10
years behind bars and had to register as a sex offender upon his release.
A subsequent investigation revealed that the lead detective and prosecutor
withheld evidence that would have cleared Giles.
Giles and the other men said they have tried to move on with their lives.
But it has been tough, they said.
To show that he is trying to move on, Giles tore up his sex-offender
registration card and waved his new voter registration card.
"We should open up our minds to do the right thing," Giles said. "Don't
worry about the next election."
Among the changes discussed were creating guidelines for photo lineups,
videotaping and recording interrogations, and requiring prosecutors to
have an "open file policy" that releases evidence to defense attorneys.
Hervey also suggested creating a roving lab that would spot-check and
verify the work being done by the state's crime labs. All of these
changes, however, will ultimately depend on the money available, she said.
"There are so many things in the system that there is just not one fix,"
Hervey said. "It has to be a collective effort."
Here are a few criminal-justice bills that have been introduced in the
Legislature but did not pass:
Capital defender office — Establish an office to handle all death row
Innocence Commission — Create a nine-member commission to evaluate
wrongful-conviction cases to try to determine what went wrong.
Eyewitness identification — Establish guidelines for photo lineups,
including not allowing the supervising case officer to attend.
Taping interrogations — Require law enforcement agencies to record video
or audio of interrogations.
Witness inducement — Require law enforcement officials to report when
witnesses have received payment or a reduced sentence in return for
Open files — Require district attorneys to release certain evidence to
the defendant within 30 days of indictment.
(source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
9 who were wrongfully convicted plead for reform—–Men cleared by DNA
tests say state should create an innocence commission
9 wrongfully convicted men who spent a collective 148 years in Texas
prisons met with a select group of prosecutors, judges and police chiefs
in the Senate chamber Thursday to urge the state to establish a commission
to investigate claims of innocence.
"I'm crying out for mercy today for someone who may still be in prison,"
said James Curtis Giles, who served 10 years in prison for rape before DNA
testing proved him innocent.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, has been leading the effort to have an
"innocence commission" formed in Texas. Ellis told the gathering that he
has asked Gov. Rick Perry and other state leaders to establish such a
commission but has not heard back from them.
Perry's top criminal justice adviser, Mary Anne Wiley, said the governor
shares Ellis' concerns on issues such as improving the legal defense for
people on trial and separating control of crime laboratories from the
control of police departments. But she said he does not want to create
another layer of government in the criminal justice system.
DNA testing in recent years has cleared 33 men of charges related to rape,
kidnapping and murder.
Most of those who spoke Thursday had been convicted in Dallas County, but
others were from El Paso and Travis counties. They said their prosecutions
occurred in part because of police and prosecutor misconduct and because
of faulty eyewitness identification.
Alejandro Hernandez said he spent 13 years in prison for murder based on a
faulty police photo lineup. He said some innocent people could avoid
conviction if a person not involved in the investigation handled photo
lineups so they would not know which person was the suspect.
Billy Smith fought for 5 years to have the DNA test that exonerated him
and prompted his release from prison after serving 19 years of a life
sentence for rape that was based solely on a bad eyewitness
identification. He said the state needs to provide better compensation for
people who have been wrongfully convicted.
"I'm a victim. Make no mistake about that," Smith said.
New York criminal defense lawyer Barry Scheck, who directs the Innocence
Project that has represented many of those freed in Texas, said "enormous
progress has been made" in Texas.
Scheck praised Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt for making major
improvements in the Houston crime lab. But Scheck said every police
department in Texas needs to be improving its handling of eyewitness
identifications as well as the collection of DNA evidence.
Hurtt said the state should consider funding regional crime labs so that
the police are not in charge of them and they can be run on a more
professional and efficient basis.
Hurtt said crime labs in this country are doing a good job if they can
turn a DNA test around in three to 5 days. He said in the United Kingdom,
the tests are done in three to five hours because of assembly line
Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins said efforts by his office
to review innocence claims have restored confidence in the criminal
justice system locally. Watkins said that several years ago drug dealers
knew Dallas juries would not convict them because of a police
Watkins said one of his prosecutors recently was worried he could not get
a conviction in a murder case because of publicity surrounding the
wrongful-conviction release of 27-year inmate James Lee Woodard. But he
said the jury took only 5 minutes to convict because confidence in the
Dallas criminal justice system has been restored.
Jeff Blackburn of the Texas Innocence Project said it is not enough to
talk about how problems can be avoided in the future, however.
"For every exonerated up there (on the podium) there are probably 300
people in TDCJ (Texas Department of Criminal Justice) who are innocent and
need to get out," Blackburn said.
(source: Houston Chronicle)