Harmful Errors: Texas Approaches Its 500th Execution

A cemetery for prisoners in Huntsville, Texas. Grave markers with an "X" or the word "Executed" indicate the prisoner was put to death (Photo Credit: Chantal Valery/AFP/Getty Images).

A cemetery for prisoners in Huntsville, Texas. Grave markers with an “X” or the word “Executed” indicate the prisoner was put to death (Photo Credit: Chantal Valery/AFP/Getty Images).

On July 30, 1964, the state of Texas executed Joseph Johnson Jr. He was one of the 21 African-Americans put to death in the Lone Star State in the 1960s, out of 29 executions overall. But his was also to be the last execution in Texas for 18 years.

In the late 1960s, executions in the United States dwindled and in 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned all U.S. death penalty laws. New death penalty laws were permitted in 1976 and executions resumed the next year. However, it was not until late 1982, more than 18 years after Johnson’s execution, that Texas would restart its machinery of death.

Since then, Texas has been responsible for, by far, more executions than any other state. On June 26, Texas is scheduled to put Kimberly McCarthy to death – in the process carrying out its 500th execution since reinstatement.

The continued high use of the death penalty in Texas (though at a lower rate than in the so-called “zero tolerance” (1990s), flies in the face of the overall U.S. trend, which has seen death sentences, executions, and public support for capital punishment dropping steadily. Texas itself is not immune from that trend, as death sentences in the Lone Star State are now at historic lows.

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Race And Justice In North Carolina: Sinking Into The Past

Death row inmate Marcus Robinson listens in Fayetteville, North Carolina as Judge Greg Weeks found that racial bias played a role in his trial and sentencing. It was the first case to be decided under the North Carolina's Racial Justice Act (Photo Credit: Shawn Rocco/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images).

Death row inmate Marcus Robinson listens in Fayetteville, North Carolina as Judge Greg Weeks found that racial bias played a role in his trial and sentencing. It was the first case to be decided under the North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act (Photo Credit: Shawn Rocco/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images).

I grew up in Durham, North Carolina in the 1970s. Racism – the Jim Crow kind – was still there in pockets, but it seemed to be receding; or at least it was being replaced by the less overt, white-flight variety. I left home for college in the 1980s and watched from a distance as North Carolina continued to struggle to extricate itself from its legacy of racism.

The death penalty is one of the ugliest vestiges of that ugly legacy, but North Carolina has not executed anyone since 2006. There were no death sentences in 2012. A poll earlier this year showed that majorities of North Carolinians support replacing the death penalty with life without parole.

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Who’s Next To Abolish The Death Penalty – Delaware?

The state of Delaware is known as the “Small Wonder”, but it has a surprisingly large death row.  With 17 men (10 of them African American) facing execution, Delaware’s death row is more than twice as big as Virginia’s, and more than 3 times the size of Maryland’s.  And Delaware has the third highest per capita execution rate of any state in the U.S. (behind Oklahoma and Texas).

But now, a bill making its way through the state legislature may mean than no one else will be sent to Delaware’s death row.  A death penalty repeal bill has already cleared the Delaware Senate, and will be taken up by the House on April 24.

There are deep concerns about costs, about wrongful convictions, and about the racial disproportionality of Delaware’s death penalty (the subject of a Cornell University study). These concerns, amplified by powerful appeals from family members of murder victims, and by the voices of those forced to become complicit in state killing (like this juror from a recent Delaware capital case), may be enough to bring about a second successful state death penalty repeal this year.

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Maryland Legislature Passes Death Penalty Abolition!

Today the Maryland House of Delegates followed the lead of the state Senate and passed the death penalty repeal bill. The bill now goes to Governor Martin O’Malley who almost certainly will sign it, making Maryland the 18th state to abandon capital punishment (Photo Credit: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Today the Maryland House of Delegates followed the lead of the state Senate and passed the death penalty repeal bill. The bill now goes to Governor Martin O’Malley who almost certainly will sign it, making Maryland the 18th state to abandon capital punishment (Photo Credit: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Today the Maryland House of Delegates followed the lead of the state Senate and passed the death penalty repeal bill. The bill now goes to Governor Martin O’Malley who almost certainly will sign it, making Maryland the 18th state to abandon capital punishment, and the 6th state in 6 years to join the abolition club.

This culminates a decades-long campaign, stretching back to the 1980s, in which Amnesty International – in coalition with other groups – has always played an integral part. For me personally, it caps 6 years of thoroughly meaningful and rewarding work with a terrific collection of Amnesty staff and activists and coalition partners.

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Race, Politics and Maryland’s Lingering Death Penalty

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley

Maryland Governor O’Malley Joins Pastors’ March on Annapolis to repeal the death penalty in Maryland in 2009.

While a New York Times editorial highlights the fact that states are “retreating” from capital punishment due to “evolving standards of decency,” very little evolution is evident in Maryland’s political circles, where a stacked Senate committee has for years been the one and only stumbling block to death penalty repeal.

As Gerald Stansbury of the NAACP writes in the Baltimore Sun, 75% of murder victims in Maryland are African American, and almost 50% of murders go unsolved each year. Yet the capital punishment system diverts a massive amount of resources to cases in which the victims were white – all 5 Maryland inmates executed and all 5 current residents of Maryland’s death row were convicted of killing white victims.

There is only one African American on Maryland’s 11 member Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee (despite the state’s 31% overall African American population). As Stansbury puts it: “right now, the Judicial Proceedings Committee has jurisdiction over all criminal justice issues but fails to adequately represent those who are affected by these issues the most — people of color.”

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Is Racial Justice In North Carolina Coming Or Going?

North Carolina is a state being pulled in two directions at once.  A Southern state, with that legacy of slavery and racism, North Carolina has been, historically, an avid user of the death penalty.  No more.  There have been no executions since 2006, and this year (for the first time in 35 years) there were no death sentences either. Passage of the Racial Justice Act in 2009, which promised to expose past and present racial biases at work in North Carolina’s criminal justice system, was hailed as an inspiring example of a Southern state courageously coming to terms with its racial realities.

Then, in April, Cumberland County Superior Court judge Meeks ruled that “race was a significant factor in prosecutorial decisions” in the case of Marcus Robinson, and commuted his death sentence. When confronted with this stark example of racial bias in practice, the political response was swift: cut and run.  By July, the RJA had been gutted; next year it will probably be repealed entirely.  The racial bias embedded in North Carolina criminal justice will once again be swept under the rug.  Enlightenment will be shunned, and blissful ignorance embraced.

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Age 19 + No Prior Record + Sloppy Lawyers = Death Sentence

Anthony Haynes

Anthony Haynes

Anthony Haynes, a 19-year-old at the time of the crime with no prior criminal history, is scheduled to be executed in Texas on October 18.

As noted in this space previously, there were serious issues of racial bias in his case (African American defendant, 11 white jurors, judge cleaning guns during jury selection). There were also bad lawyers and a possibly coerced confession. Despite this, the state of Texas is prepared to put this man to death for a crime he committed as a teenager under the influence of crystal meth.

Two days before Haynes fatally shot Kent Kincaid, an off-duty police officer, a friend of the family had given him crystal meth. It was Haynes’ first experience with the drug. The same friend wrote in a sworn statement that during those two days Haynes began “talking crazy,” saying he had been unable to sleep for days and thought someone was following him. When Sergeant Kincaid approached Haynes’ car, Haynes’ drug-induced paranoia really kicked in – he believed he would be dragged from the car. He shot and killed Officer Kincaid.

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What If A Texas Judge Cleaned Guns During Jury Selection?

cleaning gunsAnthony Haynes was only 19.  An African American with no prior criminal record, he was under the influence of crystal meth and mental health problems when he killed an off-duty police officer in Houston, Texas in May 1998.

At jury selection for his trial, the judge cleaned guns while African Americans were peremptorily removed from the jury pool.  What kind of message did that send?

A jury with 11 white members convicted Haynes. His defense lawyer then made little effort to stave off a death sentence – witnesses who could have testified that Anthony Haynes’ crime was totally out of character were not called.  The jury heard nothing about this, or about Haynes’ mental health issues, and promptly sentenced him to die.

Since his death sentence was handed down in 1999, Anthony Haynes has been a model prisoner, disproving the jury’s conclusion that he would be a continuing threat to society (a requirement in Texas for passing a death sentence).

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Too Much Racial Justice In North Carolina?

Marcus_Robinson

In a victory over racial bias in the death penalty, Marcus Robinson's death sentence was reduced to life in prison in April 2012.

North Carolina lawmakers are trying to gut the historic Racial Justice Act.

When North Carolina passed the Racial Justice Act (RJA), it was a beautiful moment. A state with a long history of racism was vowing to face that legacy head on, by honestly confronting racial bias in death penalty cases.  I grew up in North Carolina and, believe me, this was needed.  It was also a remarkable political achievement and it made me proud to be from there.

Then the law, which allows the use of statistical evidence to prove racial bias in capital cases, was applied.

In the case of Marcus Robinson, a North Carolina judge found that “race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor” in jury selection at Robinson’s trial, and that statistics showed widespread racial bias in other capital cases across the state at the same time. Robinson’s death sentence was reduced to life without parole.

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Poll Shows More People in US Question Morality of Death Penalty

stop the execution death penalty protesters

Protesters try to stop an execution in Texas © Scott Langley

This May, a Gallup poll showed that only 58% of respondents find the death penalty morally acceptable, a 7% drop from last year and the lowest number since the morality question was first asked in 2001.

This follows a 2010 poll from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) that showed, when given choices, two-thirds support alternatives to the death penalty.  Gallup’s non-morality based poll on the death penalty in 2011, which didn’t offer alternatives, still showed the lowest support for capital punishment since 1972.  That poll was conducted soon after the controversial September 21st execution of Troy Davis despite serious doubts about his guilt.

The question of innocence

Is the drop in belief in the morality of the death penalty related to a growing belief that the innocent can be executed?  There have been 140 people exonerated from U.S. death row since 1973.

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