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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…

Mary Jane Veloso: The tragic story of a maid caught up in Asia's war on drugs

Mary Jane Veloso
Mary Jane Veloso: duped into smuggling drugs into Indonesia.
Mary Jane Veloso says she was duped into smuggling heroin into Indonesia as she fled an attempted rape in Dubai

She has become a cause celebre in both the country of her detention and that of her birth. Condemned to death on drug-smuggling charges, she was temporarily reprieved hours before her execution, but still languishes on death row in an Indonesian prison. And last week the skies darkened again over Mary Jane Veloso, a Filipino maid whose plight has captured the imagination of 2 populations that know all about the vulnerability of migrant workers.

After the Philippines' president, the newly installed Rodrigo Duterte, visited Jakarta, it was reported that he had given his Indonesian counterpart, Joko Widodo, the go-ahead to execute her. Duterte has begun a ferocious and bloody war on drugs in the Philippines. That change of political direction has, it seems, led to yet another twist in the tortured tale of a woman who lost control of her life from the moment she entered Indonesia in 2010, hoping, she has said, to take up a job in domestic service.

Born to an impoverished family in the northern city of Cabanatuan, Veloso married at 17 but later separated from her husband. She moved to the United Arab Emirates in 2009 to earn money for her 2 young sons in the Philippines.

Veloso says that she had to flee Dubai after an attempted rape and was then duped into smuggling drugs into Indonesia. Her case has become the focus of sympathy in both the Philippines and Indonesia, where many families have loved ones working abroad, often in poor conditions with abusive employers. Before the original date set for her execution last April, more than 200,000 signatures from 127 countries were collected for a #SaveMaryJane petition.

Veloso says that a woman called Maria Kristina Sergio, the daughter of one of her godparents, told her to move to Indonesia for a maid's job in 2010. In an account that Sergio disputes, Veloso says the woman gave her new clothes and a bag that she says she was unaware had 2.6kg (5.7lb) of heroin sewn into it. "We're poor and I wanted to change our life, but I could never commit the crime they have accused me of," Veloso wrote last year in a letter to the then president, Benigno Aquino.

Her legal team launched 2 appeals in Indonesia, 1 that argued she did not have a competent translator, and a 2nd saying she was scammed. Both were rejected.

As her April 2015 execution date approached, protesters in the Philippines and Indonesia rallied to save her and hundreds of people held vigils outside the Indonesian embassy in Manila. Even world boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao made a public plea for her life.

Mary Jane Veloso's family, including her two sons
Mary Jane Veloso's family, including her two sons
2 days before Veloso's execution date, her family was allowed a visit. She explained to her sons that she would not be coming home. Her youngest child, 6-year-old Mark Darren, said he would try to think that "Mama is in heaven".

Then Indonesia shot dead 8 people, including 2 Australians, part of the Bali 9 heroin-smuggling ring, four Nigerians, a Brazilian and an Indonesian. But not Veloso, although several newspapers in the Philippines reported she was dead. The hashtag "maryjanelives" trended on Twitter across the Philippines and Indonesia.

The reprieve was down to an unexpected turn of events in her homeland. Veloso's alleged trafficker, Sergio, had handed herself in to police hours before the execution. And Aquino, invoking a regional treaty that compels nations to co-operate on transnational crime, asked Indonesia to keep Veloso alive. He said she was needed to testify in the case against Sergio and another man, now accused of trafficking, illegal recruitment and fraud.

Indonesia's president insisted that the execution was merely postponed, but the campaign for clemency had new grounds for hope.

A year on, the accession of Duterte to the presidency has again changed the dynamics of Veloso's case. Duterte's first 3 months in office have been dominated by a bloody crackdown that has left 3,526 drug dealers and addicts dead, most of them in extrajudicial killings by vigilante groups, actions that were publicly encouraged by Duterte before he was elected.

Senator Leila de Lima, who has been leading a senate hearing into the killings and is 1 of the main domestic critics of Duterte, said that she was "sad and heartbroken that the president will throw away all our efforts to save a life just like that, when it is still in his power to request the holding off of the execution". But it was no surprise, she added, that Veloso's life might seem of no worth to an administration that had adopted judicial or extrajudicial executions as "government policy".

President Duterte (left) and President Widodo
President Duterte (left) and President Widodo
Even Duterte has said that fighting for Veloso's life would sit badly with his drugs crackdown. "It would have left a bad taste in the mouth to be talking about having a strong posture against drugs and here you are begging for something," he told reporters, adding that he told Widodo he supported the death penalty in Indonesia. Capital punishment was outlawed in the Philippines in 2006.

Veloso's legal team told the Observer it was very concerned. "Mary Jane is a victim of dire poverty, of lack of real opportunities for a decent job, of pernicious drug and human trafficking. The law may be the law, but it should not be blind or deaf to reality," lawyer Edre Olalia wrote in an email. "As the leader of this nation and as the pater familias of all Filipinos, President Duterte is expected to rise to his bounden duty and fight for her, and fight hard as he does for all victims of this transnational infection."

Widodo's reported conversation with Duterte has reinvigorated public interest in Veloso's case and the office of Indonesia's attorney general said last week that she would not be killed in the next wave of executions. The judge in the case involving Sergio said that she would fly to Indonesia this month to get a deposition from Veloso in her prison cell. Veloso's supporters believe that a trial can vindicate her, if it can prove she was used as a pawn.

"Winning the case will codify Mary Jane's innocence and erase all doubts that she should be spared from execution," said Garry Martinez, chair of Migrante International.

Ruperto Santos, a prominent Roman Catholic bishop in the Philippines, said that "conflicting reports regarding the actions of President Duterte" on the Veloso case were regrettable. "Let us continue to pray for her, that her life be spared."

Source: The Guardian, Oliver Holmes, September 19, 2016

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