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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 Court of Criminal Appeals halts upcoming execution of Ronaldo Ruiz

'The Walls' Unit, Huntsville, Texas
'The Walls' Unit, Huntsville, Texas
Ronaldo Ruiz was set to be executed on Aug. 31, but - as with the prior 6 scheduled executions in Texas that have been stayed or delayed - a Texas court ordered a stay of execution for him on Friday.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Friday halted the upcoming execution of Ronaldo Ruiz, who was set to be put to death on Aug. 31.

Texas was set to execute Ruiz, a hit man in the 1992 murder of a 29-year-old woman. Ruiz, 43, was set to die by lethal injection on Aug. 31 after he was convicted in the murder-for-hire of Theresa Rodriguez.

Ruiz would have become the 6th inmate to be executed in Texas in 2016.

In his latest habeas corpus application, Ruiz raised questions about deficiency of his trial counsel and his initial habeas counsel, as well as questions about the constitutionality of executing him "over 2 decades after his conviction" - a matter the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly declined to consider.

In the Court of Criminal Appeals' brief, unsigned order, the court restates Ruiz's claims and then concludes, "After reviewing applicant's writ application, we have determined that his execution should be stayed pending further order by this Court."

The country's busiest death chamber has not carried out an execution in nearly 4 months. The past 6 scheduled executions in Texas - including Ruiz's previously scheduled July execution date - were stayed, delayed, or withdrawn for various reasons.

This marks the longest period Texas has gone without killing inmates since 2014, when no executions took place for nearly 5 months amid furor over Oklahoma's botched execution of Clayton Lockett and legal challenges related to Texas' drug secrecy.

Jason Clark, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), told BuzzFeed News prior to Friday's ruling in Ruiz's case that the agency was "not involved in setting or withdrawing execution dates." He added that the TDCJ "stands ready to carry out" executions.

In a year already marked by fewer executions, Texas is the only state with executions scheduled for the remainder of 2016. Other active death penalty states are grappling with a variety of obstacles ranging from the effect of Supreme Court rulings earlier this year to drug shortages and the fallout from botched executions.

Even in Texas, in August alone now, 3 scheduled executions have been stayed - while the date for another was changed.

Ruiz was hired by 2 brothers, Mark Rodriguez and Michael Rodriguez, to kill Michael's wife Theresa for a life insurance scheme. Ruiz shot and killed Theresa in the couple's garage after following them home from a movie theater. The brothers paid Ruiz $2,000 for the murder.

Ruiz was first scheduled to die in 2007, but a federal appeals court gave him a reprieve. His execution was then set for July 27 of this year after the US Supreme Court refused to review his case in May 2015. However, his execution was pushed to Aug. 31 because of the state's failure to sufficiently notify his counsel of his pending execution, Jennifer Moreno, an attorney at the Berkeley Law Death Penalty Clinic told BuzzFeed News.

On Aug. 19, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit from 5 death row inmates, including Ruiz, who demanded that the state retest its drugs before executing them. That case is now on appeal before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Source: BuzzFeed News, August 27, 2016

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