Death Penalty System In Texas Needs Reform, Lawyer Group Says

Sep 18, 2013

The state’s death penalty system has made progress in recent years but continues to fall short, according to a report issued today by the American Bar Association.

The 500-page report offers several recommendations:

  • Ensure Texas' procedures are science-based. "In too many areas – from expert evidence to determining a defendant's eligibility for the death penalty –Texas' procedures are out of line with the best known scientific methods and procedures," the group said.
  • Empower juries in capital cases. "A number of improvements and clarifications of the instructions given to jurors would both improve the accuracy of their decision-making and better inform them of their roles and responsibilities in deciding whether to sentence a defendant to death," the group said. "A jury should never sentence someone to death because they are confused about the law in the case."
  • Provide fair deadlines and procedures for death row inmates with serious appellate or constitutional issues. "The people already on Texas' death row have not received the benefits of recent reforms to the Texas capital punishment system. This uneven treatment is not tolerable in our system of justice. … Current death row inmates may be executed without a court ever reviewing cases with serious procedural and constitutional problems. The post-conviction process in Texas needs to be brought into line with other capital punishment states by making filing deadlines more consistent, making the process more thorough and transparent with in-person review hearings and published opinions upholding or overturning convictions, and a proportionality review to ensure that the death penalty is being applied consistently across Texas."
  • Make clemency a meaningful process. "Texas' clemency process may not only result in minimal review, but it also may contribute to the extraordinarily high denial rate of clemency petitions in Texas: Texas has executed 503 inmates in the modern death penalty era and has commuted the sentence of only two inmates facing imminent execution. By comparison, the state with the second highest number of executions after Texas – Virginia – has executed 110 inmates while commuting the sentence of eight inmates."

The report is part of a six-year effort by the American Bar Association to examine how sates that offer the death penalty “ensure fairness and minimize the risk of executing the innocent.”

The association says it has conducted assessments of the death penalty systems in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia.

The report was produced by the Texas Capital Punishment Assessment Team. Jennifer Laurin, professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, is the team’s chairwoman. Other members include former Gov. Mark White; Paul Coggins, former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas; W. Royal Furgeson, retired U.S. District Court judge for the Northern District of Texas; former Texas Supreme Court Justice Deborah Hankinson; Ronald Breaux of Haynes and Boone, LLP, in Dallas; Professor Ana Otero of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, and Charles Terrell, Sr., founder of Safer Dallas.

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