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Is death knell near for the death penalty in Texas?

Texas' death house, 'The Walls Unit', Huntsville, Texas
Texas' death house, 'The Walls Unit', Huntsville, Texas
Saturday marked 40 years since the Supreme Court’s Gregg v. Georgia decision, which brought about the modern death penalty, and Texas continues to lead the nation in executions. But a local death penalty case is coming back for review, and lawyers are starting to signal the death knell of state executions.

In September, oral arguments are scheduled in U.S. District Court in Amarillo to determine if a death row case in Potter County should be reopened.

John Lezell Balentine, 47, has spent 17 years on death row.

Balentine’s crime was the first recorded triple homicide in Amarillo history, according to Amarillo Globe-News files.

Balentine confessed to the murders after his arrest, according to the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

At one point in 2009, Balentine was one day away from execution before being granted a reprieve. In 2011, Balentine was within one hour of his execution before Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia stopped it.

The attorney general’s office said that the issue revolves around whether the court should reopen the case to consider whether Balentine’s lawyer failed to investigate and present evidence that would convince a jury not to sentence him to death.

James Farren, the Randall County criminal district attorney, was the prosecutor in Holberg’s case [Holberg, 43, was sentenced to death in 1998 for the 1996 murder and robbery of an 80-year-old man] and estimates it has cost $2 million to $3 million — and counting. Farren has not changed his mind about the philosophical questions around the death penalty, but sees it slowly dying off.

“I think (the death penalty) should only be sought when it is an egregious event, but the kind of case that would justify the death penalty is rarer, not because my opinion has changed as far as the morality of it, but because of practical issues,” Farren said.

“The process has become so onerous, time-draining and resource-draining that the local prosecutors who choose to seek the death penalty in most cases are going to opt not to. It’s simply unfair to the taxpayers to bankrupt the county pursuing that result in a single case.”

Farren said that laws regarding mitigating evidence, such as the Supreme Court decisions that all four death row inmates from Potter and Randall counties are relying on, has become the primary driving force in reviewing death penalty cases and has sent more cases back to its sentencing phase than any other issue.

Additionally, a changing demographic and changing laws allow even one juror to choose life imprisonment over death.

“It’s difficult to find 12 people who all agree that even though this person may die in prison to vote for the death penalty,” Farren said.

“The opponents of the death penalty have obtained through the back door what they couldn’t obtain through the front door. The practical effect is the eradication of the death penalty.”

Is the death penalty on the decline?

There are two executions scheduled for July 14, one in Georgia and one in Texas, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Perry Williams, 35, is set to die from lethal injection for shooting and killing a man who was returning a video.

If both Texas and Georgia go through with these executions, it will have been 64 days since the last one, which was a Missouri man convicted of a triple homicide.

Although the death penalty seems to be declining nationally and statewide, Texas continues to lead the nation.

In 2015, 13 people were executed in Texas. This year, there have been six executions, but seven more are still scheduled.

“Texas is trending downwards, but the difference is that Texas is still executing more people than anybody else in the western hemisphere,” said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

“At the same time that it continues to execute people, the Texas courts are granting more stays of execution and Texas juries are returning more and more life sentences.”

In 2015, Texas had 274 people on death row; two died, nine were removed and two were added.


Source: amarillo.com, Aaron Davis, July 2, 2016

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