Review death penalty law, ex-governor urges—-White worries about
execution of the innocent
Former Gov. Mark White, who was involved in the executions of 20 condemned
criminals, says it may be time for Texas to do away with the death
The death penalty is no longer a deterrent to murder, and long stays for
the condemned on death row shows justice is not swift, White said.
More than anything, he said, he has grown concerned that the system is not
administered fairly and that there are too many risks of executing
White said the state needs to take a serious look at replacing the death
penalty with life without parole.
"There is a very strong case to be made for a review of our death penalty
statutes and even look at the possibility of having life without parole so
we don't look up one day and determined that we as the state of Texas have
executed someone who is in fact innocent," said White.
Current Gov. Rick Perry is facing national criticism for not granting a
30-day stay in 2004 to Cameron Todd Willingham after an arson expert
raised questions about the house fire that killed his 3 children.
Perry ignited the controversy recently by replacing members of the Texas
Forensics Commission that were looking into the science behind the arson
investigation in the Willingham case.
Perry responded by calling Willingham a monster and saying he has no doubt
of his guilt.
Noting that he does not know all the facts in the Willingham case, White
said it shows how forensic science is evolving. White said there also has
been at least one case of a death row inmate being cleared by modern DNA
testing. That was the case of Michael Blair, a child sex offender who was
convicted of killing Ashley Estell after a playground abduction, but
exonerated when DNA testing indicated someone else likely was involved.
"That's 2 examples of why I think the system is so unreliable it creates
an unnecessary possibility that an innocent person would be executed in
Texas. And I don't think anybody in Texas wants that to happen," White
The former Democratic governor also said he was upset by the incident in
2007 when the Court of Criminal Appeals was closed to an inmate's efforts
to file a last-minute appeal based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that
came down earlier in the day of his execution. That case has resulted in a
State Judicial Conduct Commission investigation of Presiding Judge Sharon
"That was a horrible procedural error," White said.
White, as attorney general in 1982, represented the state in the 1st
execution after the death penalty was reinstated. As governor from 1983 to
1987, he oversaw 19 executions.
White said during his tenure as governor, then-Attorney General Jim Mattox
was in Huntsville and he remained by the telephone in case an execution
needed to be halted at the last minute. White said none of the cases he
handled involved claims of innocence.
White said he is not critical of Perry's handling of the Willingham case
and would not second guess him.
(source: Houston Chronicle)
Ex-governor White urges rethink of death penalty
A former Texas governor says it's time for the state to rethink the death
Mark White was involved with 20 executions as a state attorney general and
governor. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio
Express-News, the veteran Democrat says the death penalty no longer deters
He says the long delays between convictions and executions means there is
no swift justice. He also says he's increasingly concerned that the law
isn't administered fairly and that the risk of putting innocent people to
death is too great.
His comment come at a time when Texas Gov. Rick Perry is under criticism
for replacing member of the Texas Forensics Commission. That delayed
consideration of a report questioning the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd
(source: Associated Press)
Arson case adds new twist to Texas candidates' death penalty stance
As the debate over whether the state executed an innocent man spills over
into the governor's race, Rick Perryand Kay Bailey Hutchison are operating
by a longtime rule of Texas politics: Don't mess with the death penalty.
Perry defends the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham and assures
conservative voters who will decide the Republican primary that the
state's system of capital punishment is sound.
Hutchison's task is more complicated. She argued that Perry, by
politicizing the investigation, poses a threat to the death penalty by
casting a cloud over the system.
History shows that in Texas, it's nearly impossible to be elected to
statewide office without supporting capital punishment.
Polls show that nearly 3/4 Texans support it, and the numbers are even
higher among conservative Republicans.
But even among Democrats, support for the death penalty is a virtual
requirement. In the robust Democratic primary in 1990, all 3candidates
tried to outdo each other on their willingness to execute the bad guys.
"There's a strong law-and-order tradition in Texas," said Corey Ditslear,
a professor at the University of North Texas who specializes in judicial
politics. "It's a frontier state, a breakaway from Mexico that charted its
own path by maintaining law and order."
The Willingham investigation, though, could introduce an element that all
candidates dislike: unpredictability.
Willingham maintained his innocence in the 1991 Corsicana house fire that
killed his three children. Although evidence at the trial pointed to his
guilt, subsequent investigations by experts have raised questions about
whether the fire was arson.
An independent expert hired by the state forensic commission concluded the
arson investigation was flawed. But two days before the panel was to hear
the report, Perry replaced three members of the commission, including the
The meeting was canceled, and Perry's new appointee has yet to reschedule
it, and it's unclear what, if anything, the panel will do next.
Inside the Perry political campaign, there were concerns that the
governor's actions were feeding a growing election-season controversy, a
campaign insider said.
Last week, Perry went on the offensive, portraying Willingham as a
"monster" who "tried to beat his wife into an abortion," killed his
children and deserved to die. He accused the state's independent expert of
"a very politically driven agenda" that benefited the anti-death penalty
Political operatives believe that Perry can weather the storm because, in
the end, he's on the side of the death penalty.
Inside the Hutchison camp, operatives wanted to be sure she was not seen
as soft on capital punishment in attacking Perry. Her campaign issued a
statement asserting that she was actually tougher because the appearance
of a cover-up was "giving liberals an argument to discredit the death
In effect, each Republican accused the other of giving political aid and
comfort to death-penalty opponents.
Debra Medina, a libertarian also seeking the Republican nomination,
accused Perry of ignoring evidence in the case.
Ditslear said that so long as Perry can frame the Willingham case as a
disagreement among experts, he won't be damaged politically. But if the
public including Republican primary voters begin losing confidence in
the system, it could be a problem, he said.
Between 700,000 and 1 million people are expected to vote in the
Republican primary. They are overwhelmingly conservative and supportive of
the death penalty.
Former Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, a Democrat who has
been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor, prosecuted several
capital cases and says he continues to support the death penalty.
Earle said people in both parties support capital punishment because they
believe the system works.
"Texans believe in law and order, but mostly Texans are fair," he said.
"They believe in the death penalty, but the guy had better be guilty."
In 1990, Democrats seeking their party's gubernatorial nomination competed
with each other over who was responsible for sending more people to the
Ann Richards fended off a commercial in which Jim Mattox accused her of
being the choice of Texas death-row inmates.
Mattox touted the fact that he attended most executions as attorney
general and helped redesign how officials carried out the death penalty.
And former Gov. Mark White aired a commercial taking personal
responsibility for those executed during his tenure.
Walking among the black-and-white portraits of men put to death, White
said: "As governor, I made sure they received the ultimate punishment
White, now a lawyer in Houston and the only one of the 3Democratic
candidates still living, said he supported capital punishment every time
he ran for office but no longer does because of the risk of a mistake.
"We're very tough on crime in Texas," he said. "But as tough as old Mark
was on crime and for the death penalty, when I review it today, I have
very, very serious reservations about trusting our system of government
making the right decision every time and not executing an innocent
Ditslear said that erosion of public support is reflected in polls. A 2007
poll conducted by Sam Houston State University, found that while 74 %of
Texans support the death penalty, that's down from 80 %in 2001.
Still, Texans continue to back capital punishment in big numbers, which
political candidates know.
"I'm not running for anything," White said. "It's a lot easier for me to
(source: Dallas Morning News)
Chapter and verse on the death penalty—-When Texan jurors turned to the
Old Testament to determine if a man on death row should die they crossed
an important line
The Bible, along with other sacred texts, provides solace and inspiration
for billions across the planet. But how literally do its readers take
passages such as this one?
If he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a
murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death.
Very literally, in some cases. Because this piece of scripture, from the
book of Numbers (35:16) in the Old Testament, evidently provides some
Christians with what they believe is "literal truth" and a biblical
underpinning to their personal support for capital punishment.
When a man called Khristian Oliver stood trial for murder in Texas 10
years ago, several jurors consulted the Bible extensively during their
deliberations. Key passages were highlighted and handed around among
fellow believers. The "smite him" verse was one of them. One of these
jurors later confirmed that reference to scripture played a part in his
deliberation. In his view, biblical pronouncements always trumped man-made
laws and he fervently believed that "the Bible is the truth from page one
to the last page".
This juror, apparently just one of a four-fifths majority of jury members
who introduced biblical notions into the jury discussion, also later made
it very clear that he was a firm believer in capital punishment,
describing life imprisonment as a "burden" on the taxpayer.
Did those religious, believing jury members cross an important line when
they began looking up and discussing what they would have seen as
"relevant" verses from an ancient text? Was it improper? Was it perhaps a
well-intentioned, but deeply worrying deviation from the expected conduct
of a jury?
A US appeals court certainly thought so. Last year, the court of appeals
for the fifth circuit said that these God-fearing jurors "had crossed an
important line" when they searched for guidance in scripture. It was, said
this federal court, a more "egregious" example of this than had occurred
in other jurisdictions. But federal appeals courts are extremely chary of
overturning state courts' decisions. Oliver's appeal was dismissed. Surely
the supreme court couldn't let this pass? In fact, because of growing
disquiet in the US about a resort to Bibles in jury rooms, earlier this
year a group of 46 federal and state prosecutors joined together in a
petition to America's senior court urging it to examine the Oliver case to
clarify law in this area. The supreme court declined to do so.
Oliver is now scheduled for execution on 5 November. He is left praying
for either a rare clemency recommendation from the Texas board of pardons
and paroles or, failing that, a stay of execution from the hardline state
governor Rick Perry.
Human rights and faith often go hand in hand, a righteous belief in
fairness and truth frequently linking arms with a fervent desire to ensure
equality before the law and justice for all. Religion is a massively
powerful fortifier to those suffering oppression and injustice. Prisoners
the world over have held on to or even developed faith to see them through
their mightiest challenges. Indeed, many of those within America's massive
death row system survive the mental torture of years facing a gruesome
death in a lethal injection chamber by turning to God.
But when biblical exegesis replaces the solemn, dispassionate weighing of
evidence you know that things have gone badly wrong. It's one thing for a
witness to swear on a Bible to tell the truth before a jury in a
courtroom. It's quite another for those jury members to take the Bible
back with them to the jury room to decide whether a man will live or die.