The Fatal Flaws of Texas Justice

texas death chamber death penalty

The death chamber in Huntsville, Texas. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers)

Good News: Californians are currently debating the various dysfunctions that plague their capital punishment system, and could in fact bring that failed experiment to a merciful end on November 6.

Bad News: The political leadership of the state of Texas continues to myopically ignore (or deliberately conceal) the massive flaws in their own heavily used death penalty. And today, Halloween, the Lone Star State is set to kill its 250th prisoner under Governor Rick Perry.

As Amnesty International’s new report points out, Governor Perry, in his first state of the state address in January 2001 (he’s been Governor since December 2000), touted Texas executions, somewhat perversely, for “affirm[ing] the high value we place on innocent life.” But he then did at least say that the state’s justice system “can be better.”

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One Governor, 250 Executions: 8 Rick Perry Lowlights

Rick Perry

Rick Perry © Scott Olson/Getty Images

This month, the number of executions under Texas Governor Rick Perry is set to hit 250 — more than twice as many as in any other state since the U.S. death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Anthony Haynes and Bobby Hines would be the 249th and 250th Texas prisoners put to death under Gov. Perry, and are set to be executed October 18 and 31 respectively.

250 is a lot of executions. But even a small sample of the state killings under Rick Perry highlights (or lowlights) the depth and variety of serious problems with capital punishment in Texas. The large number of executions merely illustrates how little Texas leaders care about these problems.

Here are just eight of the more egregious, but also representative, examples from Rick Perry’s death penalty legacy.

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GOP Candidates Pledge to Bring Back Torture

Still from Amnesty film on waterboarding

Still from Amnesty film on waterboarding

Saturday’s Republican Debate in Spartanburg, South Carolina, treated us once again to the now traditional quadrennial spectacle of American politicians pledging to torture terrorist suspects.

The debate was intended to showcase the candidates’ national security chops and current frontrunner Herman Cain took the opportunity to demonstrate that he was fluent in doublespeak by calling for the reintroduction of waterboarding while simultaneously declaring that he abhorred torture.

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Rick Perry By The Numbers

Rick Perry

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Amnesty International does not comment or take sides on elections.  But everyone knows that Rick Perry, Texas Governor for over a decade, is now running for President.  And everyone knows that during his tenure as Texas Governor, he has presided over a lot of executions. The total now sits at 234 (40% of all US executions carried out since Perry became Governor in December 2000).

Many folks also know that at least one of those, Cameron Todd Willingham, was probably innocent, and that evidence of his innocence was ignored by Governor Perry in the days and hours before Willingham was put to death.  And that an investigation into the dubious forensics that led to Willingham’s conviction was sidetracked when Perry suddenly put Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley in charge (Bradley is now being accused of withholding evidence of innocence in a case in his home county).

But there have been other cases of possible innocence, and, as currently scheduled, Perry’s 240th execution would be of Henry Skinner, a man whose innocence claim the Lone Star State is refusing to examine.

BY THE NUMBERS

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Is Ignorance the Best Policy?

UPDATE:

The US Supreme Court has stayed the execution of Henry Skinner, at least temporarily.  He has filed a petition to the Supreme Court, and if the Court declines to hear his petition, the stay will be lifted.  If the petition is accepted, the stay would continue indefinitely and there would be a hearing at the Supreme Court.

Today, Texas is scheduled to execute Henry “Hank” Skinner, despite the fact that readily available evidence in his case has never been tested for DNA which might prove his innocence (or confirm his guilt).  Adopting a policy of willful ignorance is nothing new for officials of the Lone Star State.  Infamously, last week, the Texas State Board of Education voted to remove Thomas Jefferson from the state’s social studies curriculum because he coined the phrase “separation of church and state.” His name was deleted from a list of famous writers who inspired 18th and 19th century revolutions. He wrote the Declaration of Independence.  

Six years ago, the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham was allowed to proceed, even though Governor Rick Perry and others were warned that the science used to convict Willingham of an arson that killed his three children was seriously flawed, and that the fire might have been an accident.  Last Fall, Governor Perry personally sabotaged an investigation into the science used in Willingham’s case, abruptly replacing three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission just as it was about to hear from a nationally respected forensic fire science expert, Craig Beyler, whose report concluded that the fire should not have been ruled an arson.

Well, now it’s Spring 2010, and Mr. Beyler has still not had a chance to present his findings to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, but last night, he did participate in a panel that discussed the case, and the need for better forensic science, at Georgetown Law School here in DC.  According to the Innocence Project, three states (Arizona, Nebraska and Oklahoma) are considering legislative resolutions in support of using “solid science” in arson investigations.

Really?  We need legislative resolutions for that?

Sadly, yes. Texas officials not only don’t endorse “solid science,” they continue to actively thwart efforts to improve the quality of forensic investigations.  Executing Henry Skinner while grave doubt hangs over his conviction, when DNA tests could easily remove that doubt, is just the latest example that, for Rick Perry and company, ignorance remains the best policy.

Texas Ex-Gov Doubts Death Penalty

In a recent interview on NPR, former Texas Governor Mark White discussed his lack of faith in the ability of the legal system to reliably handle death penalty cases, and emphasized the seriousness of handing down an irreversible sentence to a person who may later be proven innocent. While he was Governor, he oversaw a significant number of executions, but White now believes that: ”What I see in retrospect is that our system is not as foolproof as I think it should be in order to carry out a punishment that’s irreversible.”

White also stated that he has never believed in the death penalty as a deterrent, because: “Obviously, with 400 people on death row, there’s at least 400 people up there that didn’t deter.”

As Amnesty International observed, Governor White’s evolution on this question is part of a national trend: “As advances in DNA and forensic science have revealed the extent to which our criminal justice system is prone to error, judges, jurors, the public, and even some politicians, have begun to question the wisdom of resorting to capital punishment.”

White’s statements (he’s a Democrat) also come at a particularly bad time for current Governor Rick Perry, who, in the middle of a re-election campaign, is now being scrutinized for his role in the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, who appears to have been innocent and wrongly put to death.

In the past, you would only pay a political price if you didn’t support the death penalty strongly enough.  But in Texas, as everywhere else in the U.S., times have changed, and it would be quite something if the most prolific executing Governor in modern history wound up suffering politically because he supported the death penalty too much.

Saturday Night Massacre, Business as Usual, or Both?

(c) Scott Langley

(c) Scott Langley

An important hearing was supposed to take place in Texas today, but on Wednesday, September 30, Texas Governor Rick Perry abruptly replaced three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission that is currently reviewing the fire investigation that led to the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham.  The Governor took this action two days before the Commission was scheduled to hear live testimony from Craig Beyler, a nationally respected fire expert whose recent report criticized the original investigation of the fire that killed Willingham’s three children as having “nothing to do with science-based fire investigation.”

That hearing, scheduled for today, has now been postponed, and the chair of the Commission, a defense lawyer from Austin, Sam Bassett, has been replaced by politically-connected, tough-on-crime prosecutor John Bradley.  More than a few eyebrows have been raised by Governor Perry’s sudden move.  Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project,  which also conducted a review of Willingham’s case and determined that he was innocent of the crime for which he was executed, called Perry’s actions a “Saturday Night Massacre,” drawing an analogy with President Nixon’s famous firing of the special prosecutor who was investigating the Watergate scandal. 

For his part, Governor Perry said that his actions were simply “business as usual” … the terms of the three Commission members he removed had expired, so they were replaced.  Of course, this occurred two days before the Commission’s hearing, and there is no reason Governor Perry could not have simply reappointed those Commission members so that they could finish their important work. 

Governor Perry (and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles) signed off on Willingham’s execution back in 2004, despite having in hand a report challenging the fire investigations as “junk science,” and the Governor has publicly challenged Beyler’s credibility, referring to him and others who have looked at the case as “supposed experts.” What Governor Perry’s expertise is in the area of forensic fire science is unclear.

What is clear is that, whatever the Governor’s motives, if his actions lead to another white-washing of a dubious conviction and death sentence (and, in this case, execution), then that will indeed be “business as usual” in Texas.

Executed for a crime that never occurred?

In 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas for setting a fire that killed his three children.  He maintained his innocence to the end, and those who looked into his case, including the Chicago Tribune, have concluded that he was in fact wrongfully executed.  His was one of the 200+ executions under Rick Perry, a governor who has remained willfully oblivious to the huge flaws in his state’s death penalty.  

Yet recently, to its credit, the Texas Forensic Science Commission reopened the case.  A nationally known fire expert, Craig Beyler, was hired to assess how Texas authorities investigated the fire.  According to the Tribune, Beyler’s report is not kind to the Texas investigators, and he determined that there was no scientific reason to believe that the fire was arson at all.  If indeed that is the case, Cameron Willingham was executed for a crime that never occurred – an exceptional cruelty for a man who had already lost his three children.

Beyler ripped the fire marshal who investigated the case, saying, according to the Tribune, that the fire marshal had “limited understanding” of fire science, “seems to be wholly without any realistic understanding of fires and how fire injuries are created,” and that his findings “are nothing more than a collection of personal beliefs that have nothing to do with science-based fire investigation.”

The Texas Forensic Science Commission will solicit a response from the fire marshal and then publish its final report.  If it reaches the same conclusion that this nationally respected fire expert has, the state of Texas may finally officially acknowledge that it has executed an innocent man.

200th Execution under one Governor

With the execution of Terry Lee Hankins last night, Texas Governor Rick Perry has reached a pretty apalling benchmark: 200 executions in his eight and a half years as governor.  As in other states, the death penalty in Texas has proven to be ineffective as a deterrent, racist in its application, and extremely costly. Not to mention that Texas does not have a strong reputation for considering all of the evidence before going forth with an executuion: there have been at least eight executions in the last twenty years where there was strong evidence of the defendant’s innocence – five of them were from Texas. This overzealous approach to justice means that Texas sometimes fails to punish the true perpetrators of some pretty horrific crimes.  Texas has been responsible for 439 executions since the death penalty was re-applied in 1976. That’s 38% of all executions in the United States since that time.

Terry Hankins was executed by lethal injection around 6:19pm for shooting his two step children and his wife. He had also confessed to killing his father and half-sister around 2000, though he was only tried for the first three deaths.

The state of Texas is likely to continue its reckless spree of executions. Hankins was the 16th execution this year, and the state still has four more executions scheduled over the next four months, the next of which is Kenneth Mosley on July 16.

An Impending Three-Month Spree

Execution witness viewing room (c) Scott Langley

Execution witness viewing room (c) Scott Langley

Starting tomorrow (Jan. 14), Texas will embark on a three-month spree of executions in which 14 men (one of them white) will be put to death.  Later this year, perhaps as early as late April, Texas will probably carry out the 200th execution under Governor Rick Perry.  This is an appalling number, particularly given what we have learned about the flawed nature of our criminal justice and capital punishment systems.  Texas accounts for 9 of the 130 death row exonerees, the third highest total of any state, and another 5 men have been executed in Texas despite compelling evidence that they were innocent.

The 19 exonerations from DNA evidence in Dallas County don’t include anyone from death row, but it’s the highest total of any county in America, and is yet another piece of evidence that Texas justice doesn’t always get it right.

Of course, sadly, none of this is really big news, and it all fits in neatly with the violent, shoot-first-ask-questions-later stereotype that Texans often embrace – but it’s at odds with what’s going on in the real Texas.  Real Texans are usually genuinely concerned about justice, and about avoiding uncorrectable, fatal mistakes.  Governor Perry should take his cue from these real Texans, who in 2008 handed down the fewest death sentences (11) of any year since the death penalty was reinstated.  Now is not the time for a shameful and reckless pursuit of executions; now is the time for Texas politicians to finally acknowledge what everybody else already knows:  their death penalty has serious problems.