Why Texas’ ‘death penalty capital of the world’ stopped executing people

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…

Famous Death Penalty Lawyer Closes the Book on His Last Capital Case

Jury box
Veteran death penalty defense attorney Jimmy Berry of Marietta closed the book on his last open capital murder case Tuesday.

It wasn't a win; it wasn't a loss. The case went to dead docket, his client committed to a psychiatric prison, declared incompetent to stand trial.

In Berry's line of work, it was the best he could do. And it got him started talking to a reporter late in the day about the 50 death penalty cases he's handled over nearly half a century.

"I'm 74. I've been doing this 47 years," Berry said. "I've tried a lot of murder cases, a lot of death penalty cases. It's sad to see the suffering of people in the victims' families, what they have to go through, and the families of the people charged."

"It's a tough doing these kinds of cases—a lot tougher than people think," he added.

Asked what drove him to choose this work, Berry paused. "I don't know. I like a challenge, I guess," he said. "I want to try to help people the best way I can."

It's not for appreciation, he said: "Generally the public doesn't like criminal defense lawyers. It's sad. You need criminal defense lawyers to make sure the system runs properly. If some things are not done properly or against the Constitution, it won't work. You've got to have both sides."

He said he still has three murder cases open, but none of them will involve the death penalty. He doesn't know if he'll take another capital case.

Tuesday's case was unusual, Berry said. After seven years of attempts to prosecute Berry's client, Jesse James Warren will go to a prison psychiatric hospital indefinitely. Warren has been charged with killing four people and seriously wounding a fifth at the Penske truck-leasing facility in Kennesaw on Jan. 12, 2010. Psychiatrists have found him incompetent to stand trial and said he refuses to take medication to control his schizophrenia and delusions. The state tried to forcibly medicate him in an attempt restore his competency, but the Georgia Supreme Court overruled that effort in 2015. Among the high court's concerns were that the meds might not work.

On Tuesday, Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley Clark signed a civil commitment order, granting a request from Berry and co-counsel Gerald Word of the Georgia Capital Defender office. Warren will be held and evaluated in much the same way he would have been if he'd been tried and found not guilty by reason of insanity. The court will re-evaluate his status annually, but Berry said he doesn't expect it to change. Warren, he said, is unable to assist in his own defense because he continues to believe the delusions that he was acting under seven years ago.

"He believes all that was a conspiracy," Berry said of Warren. Even at their last meeting on Friday, he said Warren was concerned not with defending himself but of making sure his legal team presented documentation of his delusions.

This was a textbook case for the insanity defense, if it had gone that far, Berry said. Most are not so clear, although many involve mental illness, he said. He has taken some encouragement in the development of mental health courts that have come with criminal justice reform.

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Source: Daily Report, Katheryn Hayes Tucker, August 2, 2017

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