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Why Texas’ ‘death penalty capital of the world’ stopped executing people

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Since the Supreme Court legalized capital punishment in 1976, Harris County, Texas, has executed 126 people. That's more executions than every individual state in the union, barring Texas itself.
Harris County's executions account for 23 percent of the 545 people Texas has executed. On the national level, the state alone is responsible for more than a third of the 1,465 people put to death in the United States since 1976.
In 2017, however, the county known as the "death penalty capital of the world" and the "buckle of the American death belt" executed and sentenced to death a remarkable number of people: zero.
This is the first time since 1985 that Harris County did not execute any of its death row inmates, and the third year in a row it did not sentence anyone to capital punishment either.
The remarkable statistic reflects a shift the nation is seeing as a whole.
“The practices that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is following are also signifi…

Indonesia executions one year on: Mary Jane lives but death penalty questions linger

The port at Cilacap, where boats leave for Nusakambangan island.
The port at Cilacap, where boats leave for Nusakambangan island.
It has been one year since Filipina Mary Jane's reprieve and the execution of 8 others. What's the situation now?

The anguished cry of a sister about to lose her brother, dust clouds kicked up by dozens of reporters and police, and the heavy sensation of dread.

These stand out in my memory of April 28 last year, the day before Indonesia executed 8 people on Nusakambangan, Central Java, for drug offenses.

Incongruous in the chaos were two little boys, Mark Darren and Mark Daniel, the sons of Filipina Mary Jane Veloso.

Aged 6 and 12, they were told to say their last goodbyes to their mother before she “went to heaven.”

That night, Veloso, 30, was taken from her cell and was walking to the firing squad when she was pulled back, granted a temporary reprieve.

In a dramatic turn, the woman who allegedly recruited Veloso had surrendered to police. (READ: The story of Mary Jane Veloso, in her own words) The single mother had always argued she was duped into carrying 2.6kg of heroin into Indonesia in 2009.

Shots heard after midnight signaled the firing squad had done its grim work. But at Cilacap port, we were in the dark about Veloso's fate.

I sent a text message to her attorney. I've heard a rumor. Is Mary Jane alive?

Edre Olalia's ecstatic reply came: “YES!!!!!"

Recruiters on trial

Maria Cristina Sergio and Julis Lacanilao, the couple accused of setting up Veloso, are finally on trial after protracted pre-trial legal arguments.

Olalia says this case and others expose the great danger that innocent people will be executed because of errors.

Criminal justice systems everywhere are imperfect, he says. They are complicated, confusing and corruptible.

“In countries that impose the death penalty, we know as a fact there can be mistakes,” he says.

“We know also the system is very prejudiced against those who have no power, who have no influence or wealth."

Mary Jane Veloso's relatives, including her two sons, on their way to visit her in her Nusakambangan death row cell on April 25, 2015
Mary Jane Veloso's relatives, including her two sons, on their way to visit
her in her Nusakambangan death row cell on April 25, 2015
Veloso will have the chance to tell her story at this trial. At her 2010 trial in Indonesia, she was not provided a qualified translator.

Discussions between Manila and Jakarta continue to determine how her testimony will be presented.

The death penalty was abolished in the Philippines in 1986, reintroduced in 1993 and suspended again in 2006.

Two presidential candidates - Rodrigo Duterte and Grace Poe, are in favor of returning capital punishment.

Olalia says this is a populist stance that ignores policy approaches that actually work.

However, looking at the root causes of criminality and strengthening investigative bodies don’t grab headlines.

“Crimes must be punished and people must be held accountable, but we will not solve a problem by presenting another problem,” he says.

Indonesia’s stance

Indonesia argues its death penalty is not only for those who commit the most serious crimes - drug trafficking, terrorism, murder and treason - but as a warning to future perpetrators.

However there’s still no evidence the death penalty deters drug crime.

Lawyer Ricky Gunawan has just returned from the UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs, where he gave an impassioned plea to end the death penalty.

"We are going nowhere with drug policy," he says. "Indonesia is still using the old punitive measures which have not resulted in any positive difference."

Gunawan, of LBH Masyarakat (Community Legal Aid Institute), says the annual report of the BNN (National Narcotics Agency) itself shows the continued rise of drug crimes.

But instead of changing tactics, BNN chief Budi Waseso wants more regular executions.

On April 7, 10 foreign drug convicts' names were reported in the media, supposedly the next candidates for executions.

Attorney General HM Prasetyo was quoted as saying he was only waiting for their final legal appeals and better weather.

His spokesman later told Australia’s ABC he was only joking.

Eventually, Indonesia's lawmakers will debate a revision of the criminal code that would see a death sentence commuted to life or 20 years' jail after 10 years of good behavior.

"This would be good because we know many death row prisoners, after 10 years' imprisonment, show change," Gunawan says.

"It's difficult, politically, to see Indonesia abolishing the death penalty now, but this would be a good compromise."

Chan and Sukumaran

The story of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran rallied the support of many Australians.

Chan had transformed from Bali Nine drug smuggler to pastor within 10 years, while Sukumaran dedicated himself to becoming an accomplished painter.

After legal, diplomatic and community appeals failed to save the reformed pair from execution, many questioned whether Australia shouldn’t be a more consistent and louder voice against the death penalty worldwide.

A parliamentary committee has been considering how Australia's government can improve its advocacy.

Julian McMahon, who was a lawyer for Chan and Sukumaran, now serves as president for Reprieve Australia.

“The Chan-Sukumaran case asked not only the public, but also the Australian parliament, to take a firm position on the death penalty,” he says.

“Opposition to more executions anywhere is the only acceptable position for a government.

“In my opinion, they’re doing it well now. Having said that, there’s obviously a lot more to be done.

“A number of nations who are great friends of Australia have taken backward steps in recent weeks."

Not only is Indonesia openly discussing more executions, but Japan and Malaysia have conducted secretive executions.

Death penalty

Malaysia is moving towards reform of its mandatory death penalty for some drug crimes, with proposed amendments anticipated to be introduced to parliament in May.

But last month it sent 3 men to the gallows, giving their families only two days’ notice the decade-old sentence for murder would be carried out.

Meanwhile, a Malaysian man is set to be hung in Singapore, after his final appeal was quashed.

Kho Jabing was sentenced to death in 2010 for killing a Chinese worker in a robbery.

There have been talks between the two governments concerning the 31-year-old, but Malaysia finds itself in the difficult position of asking for its citizen to be spared death while its own justice system executes.

Amnesty International reports 2015 was the worst year in a quarter of a century for the death penalty.

At least 1,634 people were put to death last year, 90 percent of them in three countries: Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The figures exclude China, where it’s believed thousands are executed each year in secret.

Amnesty International Malaysia's Shamini Darshni says the rational arguments against the death penalty endure.

"The death penalty is a very emotional argument but we have so much research to show it doesn't actually prevent crimes, prevent future crimes or help the crime rate, and it robs a prisoner of the chance for rehabilitation," she says. – Rappler.com

Source: Rappler, Gabrielle Dunlevy, April 28, 2016

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