death penalty news—-TEXAS

Dec. 18


Death sentences in Texas declining along with nationwide trend,
anti-capital punishment group says

Death sentences issued in Texas remained at historically low levels this
year, part of a nationwide trend, an anti-capital punishment group reports

Texas juries issued nine death sentences in 2009, the same as in 2008, the
Death Penalty Information Center said in a new report, maintaining a
decline seen over several years.

One of the chief reasons is thought to be the 2005 state law that created
a sentence of life without parole.

During the 1990s, Texas averaged 34 death sentences a year, and the
decline now evident over several years is particularly noteworthy
because of the state's stiff support of the death penalty and past
proficiency in handing out death sentences.

"The death penalty has been a hallmark of Texas criminal law," said
Richard Deiter, the center's executive director. "But like the rest of the
country, Texas is changing."

The center also said concerns about flaws in the death penalty, as well as
its cost, are contributing to the decline in sentences nationwide.

More executions were conducted in Texas this year than last, in part
because of a backlog after a four-month moratorium while the Supreme Court
considered the constitutionality of lethal injection. But executions were
low compared to historic levels.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors agree that the life without parole
option has drastically altered Texas' capital punishment system. But there
are differing opinions on where and why that impact is being seen.

The Texas Defender Service and the Texas District and County Attorneys
Association said there is anecdotal evidence that some prosecutors are
seeking the death penalty less frequently, particularly because of the
high cost of pursuing a death sentence.

Harris County, long the leader in death sentences, has seen numbers fall
substantially under new District Attorney Patricia Lykos, said Shannon
Edmonds, legislative director of the attorney's association. And
elsewhere, the high cost of pursuing a death sentence has deterred

"Life without parole is a palatable alternative, especially in rural
counties with smaller budgets," Edmonds said.

Others believe the decline shows a growing concern among jurors about
executing an innocent person. Questions and controversy over the arson
case of Cameron Todd Willingham caused political turmoil and made
headlines across the country. Several recent exonerations in Texas by DNA
evidence also reinforced people's reservations, experts said.

"A lot of people are saying, 'Unless I'm 100 percent sure, I'm not going
to vote to kill,' " said Rob Owen, co-director of the Capital Punishment
Clinic at the University of Texas. "That little bit of doubt can be

In response to those concerns, Dallas County District Attorney Craig
Watkins has taken several steps to re-establish credibility for the
system, including the creation of a death penalty review team. But Watkins
acknowledged that some jurors still might be leery about voting for a
death sentence.

"Any individual who has paid attention to the news is going to
second-guess the process," he said.

Gov. Rick Perry declined to comment specifically on the decline in death
sentences, but he said through a spokeswoman that he "along with the
majority of Texans, believes the death penalty is an appropriate
punishment for the most heinous crimes."

(source: Dallas Morning News)


Sam Bassett, Texan of the Year finalist

Gov. Rick Perry gave Texas a black eye with his handling of an
investigation into a controversial death penalty case. When serious
questions began to emerge about whether junk arson science sent Cameron
Todd Willingham to his death, the governor didn't seem eager for the

"A Texan (or Texans) who has had uncommon impact; who exemplifies Texas
traits of trailblazing, independence and staring down adversity; and who
has affected or influenced lives."

Perry derailed at least temporarily the Texas Forensic Science
Commission's inquiry by replacing his appointees. The move was transparent
and ham-handed.

Critics nationwide pounced, asking: Did Texas execute an innocent man? And
perhaps more important: Why doesn't Rick Perry want to know?

As our state was roundly drubbed, tempers flared. Critics called it
Perry's Saturday Night Massacre. The governor called Willingham a monster.

But as this melodrama unfolded, one straight-shooting, even-keeled player

Sam Bassett, the Austin attorney who was unceremoniously removed from the
Forensic Science Commission, could have leapt into the political fray when
the governor took his position away. Instead, the commission's former
chairman stuck to the facts.

Bassett didn't lash out at Perry. But he didn't shy from answering
questions about the derailed investigation. Bassett revealed that Perry's
lawyers had been hard at work, trying to thwart the inquiry months before
any of this spilled into public view.

They had summoned Bassett to meetings and suggested that perhaps this was
not the kind of case the new commission should investigate. The lawyers
asserted that bringing in a nationally known fire expert to assess the
Willingham arson conviction was a waste of state money.

Although Bassett was a Perry appointee, he didn't flinch. Bassett provided
the governor's lawyers with copies of the law creating the commission and
explained that all regulations for soliciting bids had been followed when
the arson expert was hired.

Then Bassett went back to work. He sought a fair-minded look at whether
science supported Willingham's conviction in the fire that killed his 3
children in Corsicana.

From the start, Bassett's job was a steep challenge. The forensic science
commission was newly created. Bassett and his colleagues did not have the
benefit of precedent to guide them. And after being appointed to the post
by Texas' pro-death-penalty governor, Bassett was asked to investigate a
case that ended with a controversial execution on Perry's watch.

This quickly became a political mire. But Bassett remained relatively
impervious to the pressure and focused on identifying potential flaws in
the process.

The governor gracelessly removed Bassett just days before a pivotal
hearing in the investigation.

Afterward, the former chairman chose his words carefully, matter-of-factly
recounting the events that preceded his forced exit. Bassett also urged
his successor to get on with the investigation solid advice that should
be taken seriously.

Bassett's efforts to maintain the integrity of this important inquiry make
him a finalist for Dallas Morning News Texan of the Year for 2009.

His good work got us a little closer to the truth in the Willingham case.
Pity Bassett wasn't permitted to finish the job.

(source: Editorial, Dallas Morning News)