FEATURED POST

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…

A sane approach to dealing with mentally ill death row inmates

San Quentin's death row
San Quentin's death row
California's death penalty system has been broken for so long, you could forgive people for thinking that it no longer exists. The last person executed at San Quentin was Clarence Ray Allen, who arranged the murders of 3 people in Fresno - 1 who revealed details of a burglary Allen had planned, and 2 others who testified against him. His January 2006 execution came 23 years after his conviction.

Since then, legal challenges have left California without a constitutional method of executing prisoners. The state has proposed a new lethal-injection protocol, but more lawsuits will likely stall the resumption of executions for the foreseeable future, and an initiative headed for the fall ballot would ban it outright. It's unclear how many executions have been forestalled by the freeze. Of 747 people on California's death row - most of them men held at San Quentin - only 18 have exhausted their appeals and could be slated for execution should the "machinery of death," as Justice Harry A. Blackmun once described it, ever be turned back on.

We hope it won't be. The result of a too-easily manipulated system, the practice is barbaric, immoral and applied disproportionately to people of color. As Paige St. John reported recently in our news pages, there also are many condemned prisoners in California who can't legally be put to death. The Supreme Court has held that the state can't execute someone who doesn't have a "rational understanding" of why he or she is about to be executed.

The state historically has argued that it could not acquiesce in removing a convicted killer from death row unless it believed there was a miscarriage of justice. And the mental state of a condemned person does not become a legal issue until execution is near, in part because many forms of mental illness come and go.

But now, under an agreement worked out with the state-funded office that coordinates death sentence appeals, Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris has taken the unusual step of joining the defense in asking the state Supreme Court to invalidate the death sentence of Ronnie McPeters. McPeters, a panhandler convicted of the 1984 murder of Linda Pasnick in Fresno, converses with a nonexistent wife and children, hoards his feces and says he's tormented by the voices of his victim's relatives.

One inmate continually bangs his head against the wall, believes he is controlled by computer chips and says he dies every night only to be reborn [every day].

Though we wish that Harris, who personally opposes the death penalty, would use this opportunity to make a broader call for its abolition, we welcome her efforts to move inmates such as McPeters off death row. Working with defense lawyers to identify those ineligible for the death penalty earlier in the appeals process keeps the state from wasting time and resources pursuing executions that are constitutionally barred from occurring. No public interest is served by the state doggedly fighting a battle it knows it can't win, and we hope the state Supreme Court affirms this new process.

What depths of insanity are involved here? One inmate continually bangs his head against the wall, believes he is controlled by computer chips and says he dies every night only to be reborn the next morning. Another seesaws between delusions and catatonia, spending days at a time naked and smeared with his own feces on the floor of his cell. Several have had their appeals indefinitely delayed because they are too incapacitated to assist in their own counsel, yet they remain on death row ostensibly awaiting execution. If they're too crazy for court, they're certainly too crazy for the death chamber.

Victims' families have legitimate grievances, and a right to want the guilty punished. But executions do not achieve justice; they are revenge killings conducted by the state on behalf of the victims, and serve no broader societal or judicial purpose. And fighting to push the insane closer to the needle moves the practice into the realm of the absurd.

If a condemned person doesn't understand why he or she is to be killed by the state, the state must recognize that and place the convicted in circumstances that will ensure basic constitutional rights are protected. Even the guilty are human beings, and must be treated as such.

Source: Editorial, Los Angeles Times, June 12, 2016

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