death penalty news—-TEXAS

Jan. 4


Death penalty: With doubts raised, it's time to address state's flawed

Like the overdue family chat about the uncle everybody knows is not quite
right, it's time for Texas to talk about something many folks know is not
quite right.

Whether you support or oppose the concept, there's no ignoring the serious
problems in the execution of how we execute people. Eleven Texas death row
inmates have been exonerated.

In 2009, we dealt with disturbing developments in the case of Cameron Todd
Willingham, executed in 2004 for the slaying of his three children in a

A state-commissioned report said law-enforcement witnesses who offered key
testimony "had poor understandings of fire science."

Does that mean Willingham was innocent? Not necessarily. But it does mean
that something short of best available science was used.

Texans harbored doubts about the death penalty long before the Willingham
controversy. A 2004 Scripps-Howard poll showed 75 % of respondents favored
capital punishment. But 70 % thought Texas had executed an innocent person
at some point.

A year later, legislators added a life-without-parole option in capital
cases. There now are 226 inmates serving that sentence, an option between
death and life with possible parole.

That option and increased use of DNA evidence highlighting justice system
fallibility has contributed to a downward trend in death sentences. In
fiscal 2009, only 5 % of capital murder convictions led to death
sentences, down from 24.4 % in 1990.

Despite the changes, the death penalty remains a difficult topic for Texas
politicians to discuss in a productive way.

"I think that frankly the people are probably ahead of many of the
politicians, and one of the places you see that play out is in local
races," said Steve Hall, founding director of the anti-death penalty
StandDown Texas Project, noting the decrease in death penalty convictions
in Dallas and Harris counties, due in part to relatively new district

Is Texas ready to abolish the death penalty, a move New Mexico made last
year? Doubtful. But Texans should be ready to address their belief (see
poll numbers above) that innocent people have been executed.

We like Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis' "Innocence Protection Package,"
including measures to increase the reliability of surprisingly unreliable
eyewitness identification of suspects and the establishment of an
Innocence Commission to review questionable convictions.

The 2009 Legislature approved an advisory panel on wrongful convictions.
We look forward to its report to the 2011 Legislature.

(source: Editorial, Austin American-Statesman)