Thursday, 30 October 2008

SANDERS: Shameful record of executions

SANDERS: Shameful record of executions

Barbed wire surrounds the building that houses Death Row inmates at the Polunsky Unit in South Texas.   STAR-TELEGRAM/M.L. Gray
Barbed wire surrounds the building that houses Death Row inmates at the Polunsky Unit in South Texas. STAR-TELEGRAM/M.L. Gray

Imagine being sentenced to 50 years in the state penitentiary.

Then consider how you might feel — what kind of person you might have become — as you reached the halfway point of your scheduled time in prison, marking off the calendar year 25 of being behind bars.

Now, imagine that you were innocent of the crime for which you had been convicted.

You might think that it couldn’t get any worse than that, right?

Well, picture this: You’re not just in a regular penitentiary cell, but on Death Row and even scheduled to die for a crime you did not commit.

Horrible, nightmarish images all.

Sadly there are too many people in this country, and particularly in Texas, who cannot only envision those and similar scenarios, but have lived them.

Only God knows how many innocent people have been wrongly convicted, although any one would be too many. We do know there is a growing list of individuals who have been exonerated through DNA testing, generally coming after the "victim" of the state already has lost many years of his life locked away from family, friends and society as a whole.

Twenty-four ex-Death Row prisoners from across the country will meet Friday at the state Capitol in Austin to call for a moratorium on executions in Texas and for the creation of a statewide commission on wrongful convictions, said Kurt Rosenberg, executive director of Witness to Innocence, a Philadelphia-based organization of former Death Row inmates and their families.

Their news conference will be at 2 p.m. in the Speaker’s Committee Room.

The men who will appear at the Capitol have served "a combined total of nearly 200 years on death row for crimes they did not commit," Rosenberg said in a statement announcing the news conference.

"Last month, Texas became third in the nation in death-row exonerations when Michael Blair was the 130th person exonerated from death row," he said. "Blair’s exoneration came on the heels of a statement by Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins that he will re-examine nearly 40 death penalty convictions and would halt executions, if necessary, to give the reviews time to proceed."

Watkins’ announcement also came in the wake of Dallas County’s record-setting number of overall exonerations — 18 since 2001.

"Witness to Innocence believes the rest of the state should follow Watkins’ lead and halt executions while it studies its broken death penalty system, which has exonerated nine people from death row since 1987, third only to Florida and Illinois in death-row exonerations," Rosenberg said.

More and more leaders are recognizing that we do have a broken system in the Lone Star State.

Last summer the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals announced the creation of a Texas Criminal Justice Integrity Unit to examine weaknesses in the criminal justice system. And, Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson of the Texas Supreme Court is among those calling for a statewide innocence commission.

It makes sense that while we recognize an imperfect system with weaknesses that must be examined and corrected, there ought not to be any more executions in Texas until those issues have been fully addressed.

The Star-Telegram is on record supporting a moratorium on executions.

I, of course, have long been on record calling for the abolition of the death penalty in this state.

Rosenberg points out that, as of Monday, "Texas has executed 417 people since the reinstatement of the death penalty, accounting for nearly 40 percent of all executions nationwide, including 12 so far this year.

An additional 16 executions are scheduled in Texas this fall and winter, and in the next few weeks the state is expected to set a record of 10 executions in 30 days."

That is not a record of which we should be proud.

Instead, it ought to be a badge of shame.

Bob Ray Sanders’ column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775

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