Nov. 1, 2007, 12:15AM
County will wait until Supreme Court rules on punishment's constitutionality
By MIKE TOLSON and ALLAN TURNER
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
The Harris County District Attorney's Office said Wednesday it will place some of its capital cases on hold until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of the lethal injection process next year.
It made little sense to pursue execution dates when those who already have them are receiving stays, District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal said.
"Since we don't know when the Supreme Court will rule, we thought we'd wait until they decided and then set them all," Rosenthal said.
The decision will affect only defendants who have been convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death, and whose appeals are nearing an end.
Roe Wilson, an assistant DA who handles appellate matters in capital cases, also said she will ask that an upcoming execution date for a man convicted of murdering an Humble woman and her 2-year-old son be withdrawn.
Derrick Sonnier, 40, is scheduled to die Feb. 26 for the 1991 rape and murder of Melody Flowers and the stabbing death of her son, Patrick. Sonnier attacked the pair after Flowers rejected his sexual advances, authorities said.
Dave Atwood, founder of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said the respite from executions was welcome, albeit likely short-lived.
"For people like myself, when there is any sort of break in this relentless execution machine, it's a good thing," Atwood said. "But I would be surprised if that subject matter caused this machinery to grind to a halt. I'm happy that they have (stopped asking for dates) because it might help with this image problem we have of pursuing the death penalty at all costs. But it only reflects that they just understand that the Supreme Court is not going to allow executions."
The high court agreed in September to hear the appeal of a Kentucky inmate who argued that the lethal injection method of execution violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Such appeals have argued that the chemical cocktail used in most states could cause excruciating pain while masking the condemned prisoner's ability to express it.
That court's acceptance of the case has resulted in a de facto temporary ban on executions across the United States. On Tuesday, Supreme Court justices stepped in again, staying the execution of Mississippi killer Earl Berry just minutes before he was to die.
The only exception was 48-year-old Michael Wayne Richard of Houston, who went to his death just hours after the court said it would consider the Kentucky case. His lawyers contend they were unable to get courts to properly consider their last-minute appeal in light of the day's developments.
Adding to the uncertainty, a California judge Wednesday tossed out the state's lethal injection method, saying prison officials failed to treat the procedure as a new state regulation, which mandates public comment among other requirements.
Two executions are scheduled in Texas for early 2008, but neither is likely to go forward.
In Central Texas, Bell County District Attorney Henry Garza said he asked a judge to cancel a Jan. 24 date for Bobby Woods.
"It just seemed to me that the writing was very apparent," Garza said. "Now we'll let them rule, and we can come back in and act accordingly."
Karl Chamberlain of Dallas has a Feb. 21 date. A spokeswoman for Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins said the office will ask to withdraw the date if the Supreme Court has not ruled by then. The Kentucky case has not been set for oral arguments yet, so a decision by that date is unlikely.
In Texas, dates for executions are set by trial judges, typically at the request of local prosecutors. Wilson said her office waited to see how appeals courts responded to the Supreme Court's willingness to review the Kentucky case before deciding how to deal with execution dates.
When Richard's case proved to be an exception, it became clear there was little reason to pursue them, she said.
If the law is unchanged by the Supreme Court decision, executions could resume within a few months.
Twenty-six of the nation's 42 executions this year have taken place in Texas. No other state has had more than three. Harris County leads the nation in sentencing killers to death and seeing those sentences carried out.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.