Death penalty system fatally flawed—-[Sam Millsap is a former Bexar
County district attorney.]
According to a report released last week by the Texas Coalition to Abolish
the Death Penalty Texas Death Penalty Developments in 2008: The Year in
Review this year Texas juries condemned the fewest number of people to
death in more than 30 years.
As of Dec. 10, a total of 10 people (9 men and 1 woman) had been sentenced
to death in Texas in 2008.
Perhaps this reflects the public's growing uneasiness with the death
penalty or prosecutors' recognition that the costs of the ultimate
punishment both human and financial are too high. Or perhaps my fellow
Texans have come to share my realization that a fallible system that puts
people to death simply cannot be trusted.
Evidence of misplaced trust in the death penalty system was on stark
display on Aug. 25, when a Collin County court dismissed all charges
against death row inmate Michael Blair for the 1993 rape and murder of
7-year-old Ashley Estell.
After the results of new DNA testing failed to connect him to the crime,
those involved in the case agreed that there was not enough evidence to
uphold the conviction. Blair had spent 14 years on death row. Michael
Blair was the fourth person exonerated from death row nationally in 2008
and the 130th overall since 1973, according to the Death Penalty
DNA played a role in just 17 of these cases. Blair is the ninth person
exonerated from death row in Texas.
Such willingness to admit a mistake has come too late for several inmates
who claimed to be innocent of the crimes for which they were executed.
In an interesting turn of events, the Texas Forensic Science Commission
agreed this past August to a request from the Innocence Project to
investigate the possibility of misconduct in the arson case of Cameron
Willingham was convicted in 1991 of setting a fire that killed his three
daughters; he was executed by the State of Texas in 2004. According to the
Innocence Project, a panel of leading experts later determined that the
fire was not arson and that forensic experts at the time of Willingham's
trial should have known that the fire was an accident. The commission will
investigate the faulty forensic analysis used to convict Willingham.
Similar analysis was used in 2004 to exonerate Ernest Ray Willis, who had
spent 17 years on Texas' death row for a crime that did not occur. Should
the results of this investigation rule out arson, it will further
undermine the credibility and integrity of the Texas death penalty system
though clearly too late to benefit Mr. Willingham.
In another Texas case, that of Carlos De Luna, a documentary film released
earlier this year continued to call into question his guilt. "At the Death
House Door" is based on an in-depth inquiry by journalists with the
Chicago Tribune. To date, no official investigation has taken place,
although strong evidence points to another suspect in the crime (now
deceased) for which De Luna was executed 19 years ago.
We cannot sanction a death penalty system that gets it right most of the
time. An honest assessment of the problems associated with the death
penalty is long overdue.
I urge Texas lawmakers to consider the cases of Cameron Todd Willingham,
Carlos De Luna, Michael Blair, Ernest Ray Willis and others when they
reconvene in January and to recognize the ultimate fallibility of a system
that no longer deserves our trust… or our support.
When it comes to human life, a system that gets it right most of the time
should not exist at all.
(source: San Antonio Express-Newa)
In recommending an end to the state's death penalty, the Maryland
Commission on Capital Punishment overwhelmingly supported a critical
finding: Maryland's death penalty system carries a real risk of executing
an innocent person.
At the risk of being called a carpetbagger, I want to address this issue
from Texas, the execution capital of the free world, and echo the
commission's findings that the risk is real – even in Maryland.
I am no wild-eyed, pointy-headed liberal from some out of the way
backwash. I am the former elected district attorney in San Antonio, Texas,
the 7th-largest city in America, and was, until a few years ago, a strong
supporter of the death penalty.
As Bexar County district attorney, I was responsible for the prosecution
of several capital murder cases, each of which resulted in the conviction
and execution of the defendant. In 2005, the Houston Chronicle, in a
remarkable piece of investigative journalism that has complicated my life
immeasurably, argued persuasively that one of my prosecutions – the Ruben
Cantu case – may have resulted in the execution of an innocent man.
I fervently hope that there are only a few current and former prosecutors
in America today who find themselves, as I do, in the position of having
to admit an error in judgment that may have led to the execution of an
Maryland and Texas are very different places when it comes to the
imposition of the death penalty. We have executed more people since
January than Maryland has in the last 40 years.
But Texas and Maryland are identical in those aspects that matter most.
The people and courts of Maryland – like those in Texas – are not
infallible. The fundamental court system is the same in both states, as it
is in every state in the country. Maryland juries determine guilt or
innocence based on testimony from fact and expert witnesses who may or may
not be telling the truth and who, even when they tell the truth as they
know it, are sometimes simply wrong.
As is the case in Texas, the criminal justice system in Maryland, on its
best day, is driven by decisions that are made by imperfect human beings.
Try as we do to always get it right, we sometimes get it wrong.
The Cantu case offers haunting lessons and could happen anywhere – even in
Maryland. Cantu had a fine defense lawyer, a fair judge, and a jury that
returned the only possible verdict, based on the evidence presented. The
trial prosecutor I assigned to the case was one of the most honorable and
ethical prosecutors I have ever known. He investigated the case carefully
and was confident when he stood before the jury that Cantu had committed
Since that time, the key witness has recanted and the alleged accomplice
has said Cantu was not involved. Whether Cantu is actually innocent or
not, it is clear that, 15 years after his execution by lethal injection,
there are serious doubts in the case. The bottom line is that we will
likely never know for sure – and doesn't an irreversible act like taking a
life demand that we know for sure?
Decisions by prosecutors drive the criminal justice system. The best
prosecutors, acting entirely in good faith, make all sorts of judgments in
capital murder cases and, because we are human, we make mistakes. Added to
that undeniable fact is the reality that judges, jurors, defense attorneys
and witnesses also make mistakes despite their best intentions.
What you end up with is a system that, by definition, can never know for
sure – and therefore cannot be relied on to protect the innocent in
capital murder cases.
Some suggest that it's good enough if we get it right most of the time –
that good intentions, strong procedural safeguards, and a fair trial
provide sufficient protection. If you believe that we must always get it
right in capital murder cases, that the system must guarantee the
protection of the innocent, accepting a system that tries hard and gets it
right most of the time is simply not good enough when the sanction is so
(source: Sam Millsap; The writer is the former district attorney for Bexar
County, Texas— Opinion, Hometown Annapolis)