Will death become the exception, not the rule?—-Quintero case highlights
a shift some attribute to sentence options, DNA, plea deals
If there was one thing that was all but certain in the world of Houston
criminal justice, it was that someone who killed a law enforcement officer
ended up paying with his life. So inevitable was this simple rule of cause
and effect that the rare deviation came with a ready explanation.
When, for instance, Man Nhu Truong got a life sentence for killing an
off-duty sheriff's deputy at a wedding in 1996, lawyers pointed
immediately to the unusual absence of a criminal record or history of
When Edward John Benavides escaped death after shooting a Pasadena police
officer in a 1993 drug raid, the mechanics of the raid itself became an
issue: A lingering possibility was that Benavides, suddenly roused from
sleep, may not have known exactly what was going on when he started
But now comes the case of Juan Quintero. The life sentence given to the
illegal immigrant by a jury last week has no such asterisk attached. The
jury decided to spare him, despite the brutal killing of Houston police
officer Rodney Johnson, which raises the question of whether any death
case even in the nation's death penalty capital is a slam-dunk anymore.
One of his attorneys, Danalynn Recer, was so impressed by the verdict that
she made a point of praising the local citizenry, not the habit of
longtime Houston capital defense attorneys.
"It is simply not true that the citizens of Harris County respond with
knee-jerk, hateful reactions to violent crime," Recer said. "We have this
strange myth that Harris County automatically has the death penalty for
Technically, she may be right. Quintero's life sentence, of course, is not
unprecedented. Over the past 20 years, defendants have faced capital
murder charges in at least 19 police officer killings. In two of those
cases, one in 2003 and one in 2006, death sentences were not sought. In
the other 17, four defendants escaped the needle.
Besides Truong and Benavides, Alex Adams got a life sentence for killing
Houston police officer Albert Vasquez in 2001 and Keith Burl Turner got
the same for shooting Harris County sheriff's Deputy Jeffery Scott Sanford
Turner's sentence was surprising, but there were some odd elements to the
crime. Sanford, a procurement officer, was off-duty when he stumbled
across a robbery at a convenience store. Instead of calling for backup, he
rushed into the store to try to stop the robbery.
Adams' sentence was as perplexing and widely denounced as Quintero's. He
had been arrested during a drug sweep at an apartment complex and was
handcuffed to another prisoner when he shot Vasquez with a pistol he had
concealed in bandages. His sentence angered the jury foreman, who said
several jurors spared Adams because of a difficult childhood, immaturity
and low IQ.
With Quintero, there was some disputed testimony about a brain problem
that could have made him fear Johnson more than he should have and react
irrationally. Whatever influence, if any, that evidence had on jurors,
Recer turned to a simpler explanation: "They saw his humanity."
Quintero's jurors also had the benefit of a sentencing option not
available in Texas until 2005: life without parole. Criminal justice
experts, especially those focusing on capital punishment, say the
landscape has been altered in recent years, in part by life-without-parole
options in 35 of the 36 states with the death penalty and in part by
shaken confidence arising from the significant number of people removed
from death row after DNA testing.
It's not so much that juries are eschewing death, as they did with
Quintero, but that prosecutors are pursuing fewer death cases, reserving
those for their most heinous murders.
"There are fewer of these cases going to trial," said John Niland,
director of the Capital Trial Project for the Texas Defender Service,
which assists indigent defendants in capital cases. "I think there's a
willingness to plead cases that, just from a statistical standpoint,
wasn't there before."
Expense enters into it, Niland said, especially in smaller counties. If
there is a reasonable chance a jury would choose life without parole, the
pressure to dispose of the case is significant.
"The prosecutors don't like to lose, and they feel like they lose when
they get a life verdict if they are seeking death," he said. "The
prosecutors also know that life without parole means exactly that. They
can assure the victim's family that he will die in prison. In trying to
resolve a case, prosecutors can need some cover, and life without parole
gives it to them."
An unexplained drop
Over the past few years, death sentences have declined by almost 2/3 in
Texas and the rest of the country. There is no pat explanation for the
drop, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty
Information Center, an information clearinghouse opposed to capital
"I wouldn't attribute it to one reason," Dieter said. "Life without parole
has to be included. The emergence of DNA testing and innocence cases has
been a factor, maybe even a bigger factor. So many cases were highlighted
in the media and on television shows and movies. There has been quite a
pronounced effect that has given some skepticism to jurors when they are
asked to impose a death sentence."
Guilt was not a real issue in Quintero's case. Recer's job was to try to
save his life. To just about everyone's surprise, including Quintero's,
she succeeded. There may be no message implicit in the jury's decision,
but it may give pause to prosecutors as they weigh whether to offer plea
David Dow is one of many death penalty opponents who would be happy if
that turned out to be true. The University of Houston law professor, who
directs a local innocence project targeting potentially problematic death
cases, was pleased by the verdict but reluctant to draw any conclusions
"I think you need more than one case," Dow said. "But the consistent
decline in the number of death verdicts suggests not so much a moral
change in whether the death penalty is something that should or should not
be given, but perhaps a change in how it should be applied to certain
(source: Associated Press)
Executions unfair, unnecessary
Executions will be starting up again in Texas on June 3, the day Derrick
Sonnier is scheduled to die by lethal injection. Ten other executions have
been set after Mr. Sonnier's, and, undoubtedly, many more will come after
None of these executions are necessary since we now have "life without
parole" as an optional punishment. Just because a person committed murder,
the people of Texas do not also have to become murderers by lethal
One case that I am familiar with is Karl Chamberlain, who is scheduled to
die June 11. Karl, like many others, had totally ineffective legal counsel
during his appeals. Under current law, a defendant is supposed to get "one
full and fair opportunity" to have his conviction reviewed. Karl never had
that opportunity, but Texas is determined to execute him anyway.
Our legal system is severely discredited every time the state executes
someone who has had totally ineffective legal counsel.
David Atwood, Houston
(source: Letter to the Editor, Dallas Morning News)