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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…

Fate of Mississippi's only female death row inmate remains in limbo

Jury box
The fate of Mississippi's only female death row inmate, Lisa Jo Chamberlin, is in limbo two years after a federal court ruling granting her a new trial in a double homicide in Hattiesburg.

The full 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, with the exception of Judge James Graves who recused himself, recently agreed to decide whether to uphold the federal judge's ruling. That comes after a 3-judge panel of the court voted 2-1 to affirm the ruling.

Graves is a former justice on the Mississippi Supreme Court, which had previously upheld Chamberlin's death sentence.

On a motion by the Mississippi attorney general's office, the 5th Circuit agreed to hear the case. Oral arguments are scheduled for Sept. 18.

Special Assistant Attorney General Cameron Benton argued the 2 U.S. Court of Appeals judges put together unimpressive statistics and an incomplete comparative analysis to find the existence of discrimination in the striking of 2 black prospective jurors.

"There is ample proof in the record to suggest that the exercise of peremptory strikes was not motivated by racial animus," Benton said in court papers. "Given the dearth of proof and the deference owed to the State Court, the Majority opinion seems to have improperly substituted its judgment for that of the trial judge and appellate court."

In 2015, U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves ordered the state to grant Chamberlin a new trial within four months, saying prosecutors intentionally struck black potential jurors from her capital murder trial.

Chamberlin is white. She argued on appeal that her rights were violated by prosecutors striking some black potential jurors for non-racial neutral reasons. "The judge went over them carefully," said attorney Elizabeth Unger Carlyle of Kansas City, Missouri, one of Chamberlin's attorneys in the appeal. "We were clearly able to show discrimination in cases of two of the potential jurors. We hope the judge's decision will be affirmed on appeal."

Chamberlin and her boyfriend, Roger Lee Gillett, were convicted of 2 counts of capital murder in the March 2004 slayings of Gillet's cousin, Vernon Hulett, 34, and Hulett's girlfriend, Linda Heintzelman, 37, in Hattiesburg. Their bodies were transported to Kansas in a freezer.

Gillett and Chamberlin were arrested March 29, 2004, after Kansas Bureau of Investigation agents raided an abandoned farm house near Russell, Kansas, owned by Gillett's father, and found the dismembered bodies of Hulett and Heintzelman in a freezer.

KBI agents were investigating Gillett and Chamberlin for their possible connection to the manufacture of methamphetamine, according to published reports.

Gillett and Chamberlin were living with Hulett and Heintzelman in Hattiesburg at the time of the slayings.

Chamberlin, in a taped confession played at her trial, said the victims were killed because they wouldn't open a safe in Hulett's home.

Chamberlain was sentenced to death row in 2006, and Gillett was sentenced in 2007.

However, Gillett's death sentence was later overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court. While in custody in Kansas, Gillett attempted to escape. That crime was 1 of the aggravating factors prosecutors presented jurors to support the death penalty.

In a 6-3 decision, the state Supreme Court said not every escape is considered a crime of violence under Kansas law. Therefore, the Kansas crime cannot be used to support a death sentence in Mississippi, the court ruled.

Chamberlin filed a post-conviction challenge to her conviction in 2011 in U.S. District Court after the state Supreme Court upheld her conviction and death sentence.

One of claims was that the prosecution improperly struck 7 African Americans from serving on her jury. The prosecutor said he struck 12 potential jurors - 7 black and 5 white. He denied any effort to strike potential jurors based upon race.

Reeves said federal law requires in death penalty cases that comparative analysis be done when black potential jurors are struck compared to white jurors allowed to remain in the jury pool.

"Some may wonder why constitutional error in the jury's selection necessitates a new trial, especially given the horrific murders committed in this case," Reeves said in his court order. "But the Supreme Court has many times explained that a discriminatory jury selection process is unforgivable

Source: The Clarion-Ledger, August 1, 2017

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