One Down, Six to Go this Month: Why is Texas in a Rush to Execute?

Affiliate: ACLU of Texas
May 8, 2002 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON-Texas once again seems determined to take the lead in the nation’s execution race. This month alone, the state had planned to kill eight death row inmates. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, has already stayed the execution of two of those prisoners.

Curtis Moore and Brian Davis both came within hours of being executed before the U.S. Supreme Court intervened, saying evidence exists which may prove that both men are mentally retarded. In another case before the Supreme Court, Atkins v. Virginia, the Justices are considering the constitutionality of executing people suffering from mental retardation.

With all of the questions surrounding the fair application of the death penalty nationwide, why is Texas in such a hurry to execute? Ten other states have established commissions that are examining the fairness of their respective death penalty practices. Following an extensive two-year study of the death penalty in Illinois, 85 reforms of the state’s system were recommended. These recommendations include banning the execution of the mentally retarded, reducing the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty from 20 to five and calling for significantly improvements to the mechanism used for appointing competent attorneys to death penalty cases.

If a similar study were commissioned in Texas, investigators would need to look neither far nor deep for problems with the state’s death penalty system. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for example, has forced lawyers to remain on capital cases even when the lawyers themselves expressed doubts about their ability to handle such cases. The state agency has in fact denied relief to two death row inmates whose lawyers slept through trial.

Race discrimination is also a recurring problem in Texas. The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear the appeal of Thomas Miller-El, who is challenging his conviction and death sentence, alleging that Dallas County prosecutors routinely and systematically excluded African American jurors from his case. Incarceration of innocents is another problem that mars the Texas system. Since 1973, seven people have been freed in Texas after being sentenced to death. On April 9 of this year, Ray Krone became the 100th person in the nation to be released from death row with proof of his innocence.

The state legislature has taken positive first steps in addressing some problems with the way the death penalty is working in Texas, such as the indigent defense system and access to post-conviction DNA testing, but much more needs to be done.

Given the findings of the Illinois Death Penalty Commission and the volume of death sentences and executions in Texas, a thorough study of the state’s system is needed. No executions should go forward in Texas while glaring questions about its fairness exist.

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