October 05, 2004
What's the rush?

I probably should have already blogged about the Governor's refusal to halt executions while the godawful Houston Crime Lab mess gets cleaned up, but if you've been waiting for me to do so I hope you've already seen what Ginger and Norbizness and Steve Bates have had to say. I'm a reluctant supporter of the death penalty, but I can't say it'd be any great loss if we executed about 90% fewer criminals than we do now. I'm glad to see that today's scheduled killing is temporarily on hold. All I want to ask Governor Perry is "What's the rush?" These guys aren't going anywhere. Given how badly the crime lab here screwed the pooch, I think we owe it to everyone involved to make sure that the evidence still says what we once thought it said for all of the potentially tainted cases before we start up the lethal injection carousel again. Like I said, these guys aren't going anywhere.

UPDATE: Turns out last night's execution went ahead as planned anyway.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on October 05, 2004 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack
Comments

This is one of the few political areas where you and I agree more or less completely. I would appreciate if there were more procedural guards in place, such as requiring positive physical evidence for capital punishment, or providing for automatic review by a higher court which could lessen the punishment but not reverse the conviction (the latter would still use the normal appeals process).

Posted by: B. K. Oxley (binkley) on October 5, 2004 9:45 PM

Normally I'd agree if the convict in question was convicted on crime lab evidence. My understanding is that there was a clear-cut confession and that even the defense isn't questioning guilt.

I used to be pro-death penalty. But I've come to decide that even ONE innocent put to death is too high a price for society's vengeance. In principle I shed no tears nor wish to stop the execution of anyone I KNOW to be guilty -- but we're not God or whatever higher power you believe in (if any), so the thought of making mistakes terrifies me.

Posted by: Tim on October 5, 2004 10:03 PM

As most people understand, even confessions are not proof positive of guilt. Confessions can be coerced. Most police officers I know... and I've known a few, fortunately only socially... would greatly prefer physical, forensic evidence over a confession.

But the issue here is not guilt; the issue is certainty of guilt. When even Chief Hurtt asks for a moratorium, based on how frequently the HPD Crime Lab is known to have screwed up, you have to believe that among literally thousands of cases, there are a few innocents on Death Row. As Tim said, even one is one too many.

As my rant on my own blog makes clear, I believe Gov. Perry, like Gov. Bush before him, is of the "kill 'em all" school. This is not simply the support of the death penalty that many Texans voice: rather, it is an assertion that our judicial system is perfect in every single case, even in the face of proof that the physical evidence of many cases has been mishandled to the point of unreliability. Both of these men have transformed support of the death penalty into a grotesque exercise, IMHO probably for political reasons.

Full disclosure: I oppose the death penalty in all circumstances. The aforementioned uncertainty is one reason. The cost to taxpayers of an appeals process worthy of the name... in virtually all cases exceeding the cost of imprisoning someone for life... is another. And the lack of firm evidence that executions have any real impact on the rates of violent crime is the most damning reason: vengeance alone is not sufficient justification for state-sponsored killing.

BTW, did you know that veterinarians no longer use the chemicals used to execute humans in Texas to put down animals, because there is some evidence the process causes excruciating pain? I remember something about an Eighth Amendment...

Posted by: Steve Bates on October 5, 2004 11:10 PM

I am proud that the Texas Democratic Party endorsed a moratorium on executions this year in the party platform. Below is the relevant section in the platform.

Capital Punishment
When capital punishment is used, the people must be assured that it is fairly administered. The Texas death penalty system has been severely criticized by major Texas newspapers, religious leaders, and the appellate courts. On May 18, 2004, Governor Perry even refused a 5-1 recommendation made by his Republican appointees to the Board of Pardons and Paroles, who asked him to commute the death sentence of a person with mental illness to life in prison. Texas Democrats extend our deepest sympathies to all victims of crime and especially to the family members of murder victims, and we strongly support their rights. We believe reforms will improve the administration of justice in Texas to protect the innocent and bring the guilty to justice.

In the modern era, Texas has executed more than 320 people Ė by far more than any other state in the nation. The frequency of executions and inadequacies in our criminal justice system increase the likelihood that an innocent person will be executed. In order to promote public confidence in the fairness of the Texas criminal justice system, Texas Democrats support the establishment of a Texas Capital Punishment Commission to study the Texas death penalty system. During that study, we recommend a temporary moratorium of executions pending action on the Commissionís findings. The commissionís report should include recommendations to correct any problems or inequities found in the administration of the capital punishment in Texas, including consideration of the following reforms that are supported by Democrats:
Life without parole, to give juries the option of sentencing offenders convicted of capital crimes to life without the possibility of release or parole;
The right to be properly represented by counsel, to ensure that every person accused of a capital crime, regardless of income, race or the county of jurisdiction, has equal access to qualified trial and appellate attorneys, including the establishment of an Office of Public Defenders for Capital Cases;
Use of DNA technology to remove legal barriers to allow the proper use of all available technologies to insure guilt or innocence before executions are carried out;
A ban on executions of people who commit offenses as juveniles;
Allowing death penalty appellants to argue racial discrimination using sentencing statistics, to ensure that no Texan is sentenced to death because of race;
Procedures for implementing the Supreme Courtís 2002 ban on executions of people with mental retardation;
Banning execution of the mentally ill and providing juries with sentencing options in such cases, including life without parole;
The right to consular notification, to provide non-US citizens arrested in Texas their right under international law to contact their consulates; and
Requiring the Board of Pardons and Paroles to meet in person to discuss and vote on every case involving the death sentence.

Posted by: Joe on October 5, 2004 11:53 PM

As most people understand, even confessions are not proof positive of guilt. Confessions can be coerced. Most police officers I know... and I've known a few, fortunately only socially... would greatly prefer physical, forensic evidence over a confession.

This much is true. Actually, in my original note above, I intended to add the following: While I think the crime lab is irrelevant in this case, it's still important to review police interrogation practices to make sure confessions are freely given and not coerced by blackmail, torture or any other less than acceptable means.

Unless they WANTED to die, I don't why anyone would freely confess to murder if they knew they could be put to death. Often, confessions are given by the accused in exchange for promises not to seek the death penalty.

Posted by: Tim on October 6, 2004 10:36 AM

I'm in general agreement, Kuff. I favor a very narrow death penalty for serial killers and mass murderers - legally, I'd make anyone convicted of more than two murders eligible for execution. That would take care of the Tim McVeighs, Osama bin Ladens, Jeffrey Dahmers, etc. But I'd probably be happier even if executions were completely abolished than I am with the current system.

That said, I do take exception to one item in your previous post:

Cuomo categorically ruled out the possibility of executing this [lifer], in keeping with his principles. I always thought Cuomo gave him a free pass. How else can you punish someone who's never going to breathe outside air again?

Ever hear of solitary confinement, Kuff? Or denying parole? Prisons have plenty of ways to deal with people who commit crimes behind bars. As long as they don't cross the line into torture or encouraging rapes, I don't have a problem with it.

Posted by: Mathwiz on October 6, 2004 1:54 PM

Ever hear of solitary confinement, Kuff? Or denying parole? Prisons have plenty of ways to deal with people who commit crimes behind bars. As long as they don't cross the line into torture or encouraging rapes, I don't have a problem with it.

Suppose we are talking about a no-parole lifer who's already in solitary confinement and who kills a guard. What's the next level of punishment? That's my point - if one opposes the death penalty in all cases, there is at least a theoretical juncture where no other non-cruel and unusual sentence has any meaning. In my opinion, the case I mentioned met that definition.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on October 6, 2004 3:20 PM