Dallas death penalty unconstitutional

Dallas County Judge Rules Death Penalty Unconstitutional, Later Recused

On December 19, 2011, during a pre-trial hearing in the Dallas County capital murder case of Roderick Harris, state District Judge Teresa Hawthorne ruled that Texas’ death penalty statute is unconstitutional, leading to death sentences that are arbitrarily and capriciously sought.  According to a summary of the court’s findings, Judge Hawthorne provided the following reasons (among others) for her ruling:

  • The Legislature’s failure to define terms in the special issues, which determine life or death for a convicted capital murderer.
  • The Legislature’s definition of mitigating is vague and arbitrary.
  • The statute’s 10-2 provision prohibits the jury from knowing that even a single dissenting juror can prevent the imposition of a death sentence.
  • Unequal funding between prosecutors’ offices and defense attorneys makes a death prosecution a matter of unequal protection of the laws.
  • The unfettered discretion allowed to prosecutors to seek death or not without established standards makes the law arbitrary and capricious.

Prosecutors appealed her decision and filed a motion seeking to recuse Judge Hawthorne from the case.  The recusal motion was granted by an administrative judge on January 3, 2012, who determined that Judge Hawthorne’s decision had been influenced by her personal beliefs about the death penalty, not the law.  According to the Dallas Morning News, (“District judge removed from capital murder trial after labeling Texas’ death penalty law unconstitutional,” January 3, 2012), “Hawthorne, who did not attend the hearing, said later that she had hoped her ruling would encourage the state to adopt guidelines for how prosecutors go about seeking the death penalty in capital murder cases.”  According to defense attorneys for Roderick Harris, her rulings still stand even though the case has been reassigned to another judge.

Harris is accused of shooting and killing brothers Alfredo and Carlos Gallardo during a robbery in March 2009.  The trial is expected to start in May.

Read more in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Dallas Observer.


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