Sunday, 15 July 2007

Death penalty broke, but Texas Legislature won't fix it

Only solution now is to abolish flawed system

Another legislative session in Texas has come and gone without any significant improvements to the seriously flawed death penalty system. In fact, a bill to expand the death penalty was passed in the last session despite objections of some prosecutors. This is going in the wrong direction.
How do we know the death penalty system is flawed?

For one thing, several people who were sent to death row were later exonerated and released. Included in those numbers were people like Randall Dale Adams and Clarence Brandley. These were the "lucky ones."

Secondly, in the past year, newspaper investigations have revealed that Texas executed three people who were probably innocent: Ruben Cantu, Cameron Todd Willingham and Carlos DeLuna.

Thirdly, police and prosecutorial misconduct have been documented in several cases. The reality is that we have several people on death row now who should not be there — some are innocent and some should have received a life sentence or life without parole.

Several cases of innocent people being sent to prison have been discovered in Dallas as a result of DNA testing. With the numerous problems reported with the Houston crime laboratory, should we expect different results in Houston or other cities?

Problems with the Texas death penalty system were clearly pointed out in a 2005 report titled "Minimizing Risk: A Blueprint for Death Penalty Reform in Texas." This report by the Texas Defender Service recommended many improvements to the criminal justice system. However, few, if any, have been acted on by the Texas Legislature.

In the 2007 legislative session, several bills were introduced to improve the criminal justice system, including bills to establish:

• A Study Commission to identify where improvements to the death penalty system could be made.
• An Innocence Commission to examine cases where innocent people have been sent to prison so that we can avoid doing that in the future;
• An Office of Capital Writs to improve legal defense during appeals.These improvements should be "no-brainers" for anyone truly interested in justice. However, legislators who want the flawed system to continue blocked these initiatives as they have in past legislative sessions.

They want executions to continue even if we execute the wrong person.
This mentality is beyond comprehension.

Since our legislators have refused to improve the system, the only answer left to ensure that we don't execute innocent people is to abolish the death penalty altogether. We now have life without parole as an alternative punishment, so society can be protected without the death penalty.

If we abolish the death penalty, we would also save the state a lot of money that could be used to improve victims' services, community policing and other crime-prevention programs.

Atwood is president of the Houston Peace and Justice Center.

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