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Texas Puts Head in Sand at Prospect of Executing Innocent People

Brian Stull,
Senior Staff Attorney ,
ACLU Capital Punishment Project
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December 8, 2010

The highest criminal court in Texas yesterday halted an historic hearing in which lawyers for a man accused of murder and facing the death penalty argued that capital punishment is unconstitutional because it carries high risks that innocent people could be executed.

Lawyers for John Green this week presented in a Houston trial court evidence showing that Texas risks executing innocent people by relying on junk science, faulty eyewitness identification, unreliable informants, false confessions and other shoddy evidence. They cited two high-profile cases — those of Claude Jones and Cameron Todd Willingham — in which evidence has recently surfaced suggesting that both men executed by the state of Texas might well have been innocent of the crimes they were accused of committing.

Lawyers for Green say he is innocent and faces the risk of an unconstitutional execution. The appeals court’s ruling halted the hearing and gives the trial court and lawyers for Green 15 days to respond to a motion by prosecutors to halt the ruling.

The appeals court’s decision represented at least a temporary victory for prosecutors, who have repeatedly tried to avoid a hearing on this crucial issue.

First, they argued that the presiding judge, District Court Judge Kevin Fine, was biased and should be kicked off the case. That transparent effort tied up valuable judicial resources, but failed.

Second, they asked the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to stop the hearing last month. In an order issued last week, that court refused to do so. Once the hearing started on Monday, the prosecutors refused to participate. And now the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has changed its mind.

Regrettably, the Green prosecutors’ actions are part of a larger pattern of prosecutors and state officials turning a blind eye to these risks of executing the innocent. When Texas executed Claude Jones in 2000, then-Governor George W. Bush denied his clemency application, but did not know that Jones had requested DNA testing on the only piece of physical evidence tying Jones to the crime — a hair recovered from the victim which state experts said belonged to Jones. Texas executed Jones without allowing him to have the hair tested. Recent DNA testing — accomplished despite the state’s strenuous objection — has conclusively revealed that the hair on which Claude Jones was executed was not his — it was the victim’s.

Similarly, when Cameron Todd Willingham was executed, the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole and Gov. Rick Perry received a memorandum by a Cambridge-trained fire expert showing that the “scientific” evidence the state had relied on to convict him was a sham. But public records collected by the Innocence Project strongly suggest that report may not have been read by state officials before allowing Willingham’s execution. It is almost certain that Willingham was innocent.

And now, further review of the Willingham case itself has been put on hold by prosecutors trying, yet again, to disqualify a judge who had the audacity to hold a hearing regarding the execution of an innocent person. “De ja vu all over again” was funny when Yogi Berra said it, but it is no laughing matter when prosecutors seek to thwart the truth-seeking process on an issue as important as the death penalty.

Twelve death row inmates have been exonerated in Texas since 1973, and there are profoundly troubling questions about the guilt of six inmates executed by that state. Yet Texas prosecutors apparently do not want the world to know that one cost of the death penalty is the serious risk of executing innocent people.

That is a travesty because prosecutors are charged with seeking the truth and upholding justice. For the sake of John Green and all of society, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will not acquiesce in the prosecutors’ efforts to hide the truth about this life and death issue.

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