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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: This Man Has Witnessed More Than 200 Executions

Larry Fitzgerald witnessed 219 executions while he was the spokesperson for Texas Department of Criminal Justice in the 1990s.
Larry Fitzgerald witnessed 219 executions while he was the spokesperson
for Texas Department of Criminal Justice in the 1990s.
So far this year, the State of Texas has executed 3 death row inmates. 10 more are scheduled to die before the end of July.

At each execution are the prison warden, representatives from the press and families of prisoners and their victims.

There's also a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

For years, that person was Larry Fitzgerald. It was his job to relay information to the public about the last moments of death row prisoners.

During his time as the department spokesperson, he witnessed 219 executions.

Fitzgerald has recently opened up about his feelings on the death penalty - and why they've changed. It's now the subject of a short film series picked up by the BBC.

When he interviewed for the position back in 1997, Fitzgerald didn't know for certain what his job duties would be. He was asked about his opinion on capital punishment and he said his feelings were "ambivalent." But he wasn't prepared for what the job entailed.

"I learned ... after the interview was over that I would be doing executions," Fitzgerald says. "It came as a complete surprise to me. It is true. I was the face of the executions in Texas for many, many years."

His 1st execution was a double execution - 2 men were put to death on the same night. He says he was "apprehensive" as he prepared to witness his first inmates die.

"I had no idea what to expect, what it was going to be like," Fitzgerald says. "Was it going to be a violent type of thing? I hate to use the term like somebody going to sleep because obviously they just died - but it was a very clinical type of situation."

As the spokesperson for the TDCJ, Fitzgerald's main job was relaying information about the executions to the media. Following the death of an inmate, he would give a statement to reporters. But Fitzgerald had to maintain a careful balance of impartiality when speaking with reporters about the death penalty. He says he was frequently asked his opinion about capital punishment, but would deflect the question.

"If I came out and said 'I support the death penalty,' then I alienate all the death row inmates and they don't want to do any more interviews," he says. "Or, if I go the other way, then the people who are victims of the crimes, the families, they'd then get mad at me, so I just tried to dodge the question altogether."

But years of witnessing death helped shape Fitzgerald's views on capital punishment. He got to know some of the inmates on death row and develop bonds with them. After leaving his position with the TDCJ, he became an expert witness in capital murder trials. His job was helping the jury understand the gravity of a death sentence.

"In the penalty phase, I would try to explain to the juries what it's like to be on death row, what's the day in the life of an offender," Fitzgerald says. "And I came to realize that, you know, maybe Texas uses the death penalty way too much."

After making the short film with a University of Texas graduate student that ended up featured on the BBC, he hopes speaking out will change some minds about capital punishment. While he admits that the abolition of the death penalty is unlikely in Texas, he wants to change some minds about using it so frequently.

"I don't think that the thinking of Texas is going to change regarding the death penalty," Fitzgerald says. "But I would like to have more consideration given by the prosecutors to go into life without parole."

Source: Texas Standard, March 1, 2016

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