People can change. Will Texas?

That’s the title of Amnesty International’s short report on David Lee Powell, a man who is scheduled to be executed in Texas on June 15 despite demonstrating great remorse and having been a model inmate for the 32 years he has been in prison. David Powell was sent to Texas death row for killing Austin police office Ralph Ablanedo in May 1978. In the midst of a methamphetamine addiction when the crime occurred, Powell cleaned up in prison. Included in Powell’s clemency petition is a statement from an Austin police officer who states:  “… the man who will be put to death for the killing of Ralph Ablanedo is not the man who committed the crime.”

In Texas, death sentences hinge on a concept called “future dangerousness”; that is, the jury has to determine whether or not the defendant will commit violent crimes in the future. If they decide he will, then, and only then, can they sentence him to death. Clearly, once off drugs, David Lee Powell has not been a danger to anyone and no longer qualifies for execution.

The problem with the death penalty (well, one of the problems) is that it doesn’t allow for the fact that people can change and improve. In fact, it cancels out the very possibility of human redemption. Capital punishment is based on a depressing philosophy that bad people (or people who do bad things) will always be bad. Certainly, human beings are capable of doing terrible things, but they are also capable of doing remarkable good, or at least doing better, if we don’t execute them first.

One of the purposes of executive clemency is to consider factors like this (remorse, redemption) that are out of the purview of the courts. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has a chance to recommend clemency in David Powell’s case, and assert on behalf of the people of Texas that, yes, sometimes people can change.

Future Danger

In the Philip K. Dick short story (and Steven Spielberg / Tom Cruise film) The Minority Report, a special agency known as Precrime relies on psychic “precogs” to anticipate and thus prevent murders before they happen.   

It is an interesting and thought provoking scifi premise, but, disturbingly, we’re actually sort of really using it to decide who should be executed … In the all too real non-scifi world of Texas Capital Punishment, prosecutors hire psychi(atri)c experts to enlighten juries about convicted murderers’ “future dangerousness”.  In Texas, “future dangerousness” is an aggravating factor that juries must consider in deciding whether or not to pass a sentence of death. 

In a dissent Wednesday in the case of Noah Espada, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Paul Womack, joined by Judge Cheryl Johnson, states bluntly that there is “no evidence at all, anywhere, of the reliability of these predictions of future dangerousness.”  Justice Womack challenged the scientific validity of psychologists’ and psychiatrists’ future danger prognostications, and concluded that: “Before we accept an opinion that a capital murderer will be dangerous even in prison, there should be some research to show that this behavior can be predicted.”

This casts the whole notion of “future dangerousness” onto thin ice, where it belongs.  Unfortunately, this was only a dissent (or, a “minority report”), so for now Texas jurors will still be required to function like the science-fictional “precogs” – Wikipedia portrays “precogs” as being “kept in rigid position by metal bands, clamps and wiring, which keep them attached to special high-backed chairs”, a not wholly inaccurate description of jury duty – and they will still be asked to gaze into the mists of future time to decide whether someone lives or dies.