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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Death Penalty In 2012: Seven Significant Signs

A final tally of the Connecticut legislature's  vote to abolish the death penalty.

A final tally of the Connecticut legislature’s vote to abolish the death penalty.

By this time at the end of the year, states have generally stopped killing their prisoners. This break from executions is a good thing, and perhaps this year it will give us a chance to reflect on the larger question of our violent culture, and on how perhaps we can start focusing on preventing terrible crimes rather than simply responding with more violence.

The end of the year is also a time for looking back. Fortunately, this is also the time of year when the Death Penalty Information Center releases its year-end report, which provides a lot of good data. This year’s version reveals the geographically arbitrary (and increasingly isolated) nature of capital punishment in the U.S. In 2012, death sentences and executions maintained their historically low levels, and only nine states actually carried out an execution.  In fact, the majority of U.S. states have not carried out an execution in the last five years. Just four states were responsible for around three-fourths of the country’s executions, and four states issued about two thirds of U.S. death sentences.

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Lethal Injection: 30 Years of Hypocrisy

lethal injection

TEXAS CODE OF CRIMINAL PROCEDURE, Art. 43.24. TREATMENT OF CONDEMNEDNo torture, or ill treatment, or unnecessary pain, shall be inflicted upon a prisoner to be executed under the sentence of the law.

Hypocrisy: a feigning to be what one is not or to believe what one does not; especially: the false assumption of an appearance of virtue.

30 years ago, just after midnight, Dec. 7, 1982, Texas executed Charlie Brooks with a lethal cocktail of three drugs.  Texas had been execution-free for 18 years, since 1964. The first African American executed in the U.S. since reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, Brooks’ final words were an Islamic prayer (“There is no God but Allah. Verily do we belong and verily unto Him do we return.”) followed by a “stay strong” to his girlfriend.

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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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Will Texas Admit It Wrongly Executed Cameron Willingham?

Death chamber in Huntsville, Texas

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

Today, the family of Cameron Todd Willingham filed a petition calling for his posthumous exoneration.  Exoneration, because he is almost certainly innocent. Posthumous because the state of Texas executed him anyway. More info can be found here, courtesy of the Innocence Project.

A Texas father of three, Willingham was convicted and executed for the alleged murder of his three daughters by arson. However, in a 2011 report, the Texas Forensic Science Commission concluded that unreliable fire science led to Willingham’s 1992 conviction and 2004 execution. Evidence cited as proof of an intentionally set fire, such as pour patterns, discoloration and “crazed” glass, has since been discredited.

If the petition is accepted and Willingham is posthumously exonerated, he will join with Timothy Cole in Texas, and Joe Arridy and Lena Baker in Colorado and Georgia, who, among others, were wrongfully convicted and executed or died in prison while serving out their sentence. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

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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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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Who Deserved To Die This Week?

witness viewing room death penalty

Execution viewing room for witnesses © Scott Langley

On Tuesday, Jared Loughner, who murdered 6 people and wounded a Member of Congress and a dozen others in an Arizona shooting spree, accepted a plea bargain that will result in multiple sentences of life without parole.

That same evening, Texas put to death Marvin Wilson, a man with a 61 IQ and the mind of a 7 year old.

On Wednesday, Arizona executed Daniel Cook, a man who endured horrific physical and sexual childhood abuse practically from the day he was born. The man who prosecuted Cook argued for clemency, but no one listened.

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How Texas Can Execute a Man with an IQ of 61

Marvin Wilson

Marvin Wilson

According to his most recent test, Marvin Wilson has an IQ of 61 (most states bar executions for those with IQs at 70 or below). That puts him below the first percentile of human intelligence, and he’s in an even lower percentile for adaptive functioning.  Despite the US Supreme Court’s ten-year old ban on executing the “mentally retarded” (Atkins v. Virginia), Marvin Wilson faces execution in Texas on August 7.

In Georgia, the case of Warren Hill recently exposed that state’s uniquely strict requirement that “mental retardation” be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt” before an execution can be declared unconstitutional.

Texas uses a more reasonable “preponderance of the evidence” standard of proof.  But the Lone Star State has found another way to keep killing the intellectually disabled. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST