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'Express lane to death': Texas seeks approval to speed up death penalty appeals, execute more quickly

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Texas is seeking to speed up executions with a renewed request to opt-in to a federal law that would shorten the legal process and limit appeals options for death-sentenced prisoners.
Defense attorneys worry it would lead to the execution of innocent people and - if it's applied retroactively, as Texas is requesting - it could potentially end ongoing appeals for a number of death row prisoners and make them eligible for execution dates.
"Opt-in would speed up the death penalty treadmill exponentially," said Kathryn Kase, an longtime defense attorney and former executive director of Texas Defender Services.
But a state attorney general spokeswoman framed the request to the Justice Department as a necessary way to avoid "stressful delays" and cut down on the "excessive costs" of lengthy federal court proceedings.
Robbie Kaplan, co-founder of the #TimesUp movement, says sweeping changes to laws in recent years have dissuaded attorneys from taking on har…

Texas executes James Freeman

James Freeman
James Freeman
A man convicted in the 2007 shooting death of a Texas game warden in Wharton County was executed Wednesday evening.

James Freeman, 35, was killed by lethal injection just after 6 p.m. inside the Walls Unit, more than 9 years after he fatally shot Justin Hurst.

He was injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital and died at 6:30 p.m., according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

He declined to give a final statement.

It was the second execution in Texas this year and the fourth in the United States. Eight more executions are scheduled in the state through July. Texas executed 13 people last year. 

The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month refused to review Freeman's case, and his attorney, Don Vernay, didn't plan any new appeals to try to block the execution from happening Wednesday.

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on Monday declined a clemency petition from Freeman.

Freeman was suspected of illegally hunting at night from his truck in Southeast Texas' Wharton County when a game warden spotted him. Freeman sped away, leading authorities on a 90-minute chase that reached 130 mph. It ended near a cemetery not far from his home in Lissie with Freeman stepping out of his disabled pickup truck and shooting at officers.

He emptied his 11-shot .357-caliber handgun, then switched to an AK-47 assault rifle with a 30-round clip.

When it was over, Freeman had been shot four times and Justin Hurst, a Texas Parks and Wildlife game warden who had joined the March 17, 2007, chase, was fatally wounded. It was Hurst's 34th birthday.

Steve Lightfoot, an agency spokesman who knew Hurst, said the married father of a 4-month-old son represented "the very essence of what this agency is about and what game wardens are about."

"He was very passionate in his role concerning the state's resources and protecting those resources," Lightfoot said.

18 Texas game wardens, including Hurst, have died in the line of duty since game wardens began enforcing conservation laws in 1895. Hurst had been with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for 12 years, the last 5 as a game warden.

Texas' Death House and Death Chamber, "The Walls' Unit, Huntsville, TX
Texas' Death House and Death Chamber, "The Walls' Unit, Huntsville, TX
Hurst was an alligator and waterfowl specialist before moving to law enforcement. A state wildlife management area where he once worked in Brazoria County and about 60 miles south of Houston now carries his name.

Vernay said Freeman's lack of a previous criminal record should have influenced jurors he didn't deserve the death penalty, which in Texas requires a jury to find a capital murder offender would be a continuing threat.

"This is a troublesome case," the appeals lawyer said. "He never did anything wrong in his life other than a DUI. This kid was not a future danger, he was just a loser. ... He got drunk and got in a shooting."

A psychologist testifying at Freeman's trial said Freeman told him he drank about 9 beers while watching a football game on TV at his home and then decided to drive around and shoot snakes and birds that night - something he enjoyed doing.

Freeman's trial lawyer, Stanley Schneider, said heavy alcohol use and severe depression led the unemployed welder to try to commit "suicide by cop" in his confrontation with officers.

"It was totally senseless," Schneider said of the fatal shooting. "It really is very sad that it happened, that 2 families are suffering like this."

Prosecutors convinced jurors that Freeman had an uncontrollable and unpredictable temper. He was on probation after being convicted of driving while intoxicated, and it was about to be revoked because he had failed to comply with the terms, court records showed.

Freeman's lawyers said the unique thing about this case was Freeman's lack of a violent criminal history. He was on probation for a DWI at the time of the shooting, court documents said, but had never faced violent charges. During appeals, Freeman argued his good behavior in jail and lack of violent history indicated he would not be a future danger to society, an element that was necessary to sentence someone to death.

"The most difficult thing for people to grapple with on all sides of this case is the lack of criminal history in this fellow’s background and the extraordinary violence of this event," said Patrick McCann, Freeman’s lawyer for his direct appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. “It’s so hard for people to look at the video of this encounter and not think that this was done by someone with a violent, vicious history.”

Freeman becomes the 2nd condemned inmate to be put to death this year in Texas and the 15th overall since Greg Abbott became governor in January 2015. Freeman becomes the 533rd condemned inmate to be put to death in Texas since the state resumed capital punishment on December 7, 1982.

Freeman becomes the 4th condemned inmate to be put to death this year in the USA and the 1426th overall since the nation resumed executions on January 17, 1977.

Sources: The Associated Press, The Texas Tribune, Rick Halperin, January 28, 2016

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