|"The Walls" Unit, Huntsville, where Texas carries out its executions.|
Death penalty foes say Texas grown sensitive to flaws in system
One of the easiest ways to end up on Texas' death row is to kill a cop.
Stickup artist Robert Jennings did just that, brazenly gunning down police officer Elston Howard during the 1988 robbery of a Houston pornography shop. In his almost three decades on death row, Jennings slid through multiple appeals, glumly moving closer to an ignoble end in the Huntsville death house.
Then on Sept. 2 , 12 days before Jennings' scheduled lethal injection, judges at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stopped the execution with a 5-4 vote. The stay marked the sixth consecutive time since May that the judges halted an execution.
While the court offered no immediate explanation for its decision, Texas lawyers active in capital appeals this week hailed the vote as evidence that the top criminal court has grown more sensitive to possible death penalty flaws. If true, they argue, the court would be in step with a national pulling away from capital punishment - a movement that could lead to the penalty's abolition.
The Jennings decision came as top state and national judges increasingly have spoken out against the death penalty, and the number of executions and new death sentences in Texas - the nation's leading capital punishment state - has plummeted.
"What connects these recent stays of execution," said Jim Marcus, co-director of the University of Texas' Capital Punishment Center, "are serious flaws that undermine the integrity of the prior proceedings, including junk science, inadequate counsel and unconstitutional jury instructions. These problems are not new. What appears to have changed is that a more careful scrutiny of Texas' defective death penalty process has resulted in greater intolerance."
A Houston pro-death penalty advocate, however, countered that death penalty foes and appellate lawyers have misread the significance of the stays, the tenor of popular opinion and the reason behind declines in death sentences and executions.
"Stays of execution are the rule, not the exception," said Dudley Sharp. "Most cases have a series of stays prior to execution or reversal. Six cases in a row may be a mathematical anomaly, not a trend."
Kathryn Kase, executive director of Houston-based Texas Defender Service, likened perceived changes in popular and legal views on the death penalty to "colliding weather systems."
"When you have such huge reductions in the use of death, both in sentences and executions, then you have the courts asking themselves if this is cruel and unusual, if this is disproportionate in terms of what other people get in terms of sentences … I think courts are seeing that society is backing away from the death penalty. … We're seeing this in stays. There's a conversation going on at the Court of Criminal Appeals."
George Kendall, a New York lawyer and board member of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, agreed.
"In a lot of places now - places you'd never imagined it happening 10 years ago - there's a real debate going on. …You go back long enough, and there was a lot of enthusiasm for the death penalty in lots of parts of the country. Where I go now, it's hard to find any enthusiasm."
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Source: Houston Chronicle, Allan Turner, September 8, 2016
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