Monday, 16 April 2007

Texas' Next Step

Texas' Next Step

07:32 AM CDT on Monday, April 16, 2007

Texas must begin a rigorous self-examination of its liberal use of the death penalty.

On numerous occasions, this page haswe have called for a moratorium on executions so leaders can study potentially lethal and unmistakable flaws in the criminal justice system.

We recognize, and regret, that the Legislature appears nowhere near ready to engage in serious soul-searching on the subject. Witness the nearly 4-1 vote in the House to expand use of the death penalty so it can be applied to sex offenders against children.

Lawmakers, with the political consideration of nurturing tough-on-crime profiles, seem to want to block out the public's uneasiness with the death penalty. YIt's clear that es, capital punishment enjoys solid majority support in Texas, and support typically tracks higher here than support across the nation. Yet underlying that acceptance is the equally strong conviction, as measured by opinion research, that Texas has probably executed an innocent person.

If lawmakers would only confront that nauseating thought – and it's not a hard conclusion to reach – Texas could inch closer to joining the national debate on whether standards of decency have evolved to where state-sponsored killing is no longer acceptable.

Advances in DNA technology have ripped back the curtain and exposed ugly truths about the system we hoped and prayed stood for justice. We now see that system has stunk of reliance on bad eyewitnesses, faulty police techniques, junk forensic science, shortcuts by prosecutors, stingy defense funding and outrageously bad lawyering on behalf of people whose lives or freedom were at stake.

Across the nation, with support for capital punishment wavering,Other states have begun earnest efforts at finding a new way. Governors or courts have frozen executions in at least a dozen states – Florida and Tennessee among them – to allow time for review. A special legislative commission in New Jersey has recommended joining the 12 states now without a death penalty on the books. Other states have prisoners on death row but haven't executed anyone in years.

In Texas, state lawmakers have introduced measures ranging from repeal of the death penalty to the imposition of a moratorium so lawmakers can appoint a study commission. We think repeal is morally right; a moratorium is a positive step in that direction. Short of a willingness to support either, lawmakers must at least find the political courage to create a commission to thoroughly analyze our system of capital punishment and the causes of the growing list of wrongful convictions.

In his State of the Judiciary address to the Legislature this year, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson spoke about "the unfortunate reality that our criminal justice system, on rare occasions, convicts the innocent."

"I recognize that the convicted often falsely claim to be innocent, but we know, right here in Texas, that some of our inmates have been exonerated by DNA testing," he said. "I cannot imagine wasting away in prison for a crime I did not commit. Can you? The Legislature should establish a commission to study ways to free the innocent."

Chief Justice Jefferson didn't mention the death penalty. He hardly had to, considering Texas' busy death chamber – one that conducted roughly 40 percent of America's executions over the past 10 years.

In Texas, the inevitability of a wrongful conviction evokes the image of an innocent person being rolled into a hearse. It's an image that's hard to erase, once the idea gets startedtakes hold.

No Texan should have to be haunted by that image, but lives are extinguished in Huntsville in all our names. State leaders have a responsibility to fearlessly confront the inevitability of a fatal mistake in our criminal justice system.

Texas legislators should repeal the death penalty.

If they won't repeal it, they should impose a moratorium.

Either way, they should create a study commission to examine the flaws in the system.

Bottom line: Don't ignore the inevitability of a fatal mistake.

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