EDITORIALS: "With Death Penalty Bans Gaining Steam, What's Next for Texas?"

The Dallas Morning News used the recent repeal of the death penalty in Maryland as an occasion to advocate for death-penalty reform in Texas. The editors commented on the overall impropriety of capital punishment: “At best, the death penalty is selectively used state-supported retribution, which has no place in a civilized society.” The editorial supported six pending bills aimed at improving the fairness of the death penalty. One bill would bar the use of informant testimony in death penalty cases if the testimony was obtained from a witness or accomplice in exchange for favorable treatment. Another bill would create criteria based on scientific standards for courts deciding whether a defendant has an intellectual disability that would exclude him from execution. A third bill would introduce a Racial Justice Act into law to protect against bias in death sentencing. Read full editorial below.

Editorial: With death penalty bans gaining steam, what’s next for Texas?

There should be no debate that evolving standards of decency mold the justice system. If that were not the case, Texas judges could still hang horse thieves.

So it is important to note, here in the nation’s most active death penalty state, that lawmakers in yet another state, this time Maryland, have decided to abolish the anachronistic punishment of terminating human life.

Having lobbied hard for repeal, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley intends to sign the bill, passed by his Legislature last week, and make his state the sixth in six years to outlaw capital punishment. It would boost the number of non-death-penalty states to 18 in all.

O’Malley asserts the justifications cited often by this newspaper: The death penalty has no proven deterrent value, is laced with racial bias and cannot overcome the inherent danger of fatal error. O’Malley also argues that the capital punishment apparatus has been a colossal waste of money that should be put to better use in combating the core contributors to crime.

At best, the death penalty is selectively used state-supported retribution, which has no place in a civilized society.

With its state Capitol and governor’s office controlled by Democrats, Maryland is half a continent and political worlds away from GOP-held Texas, where support for capital punishment has traditionally been stronger than the nation’s. A UT-Texas Tribune poll last year showed the death penalty with solid majority support in this state, regardless of political party and ethnic group.

That raises the bar for reformers in the Legislature who have filed solid bills to limit application and improve the fairness of the death penalty. For example, one bill (HB 189) would ban the use of snitch testimony to send someone to the death chamber, if the testimony came in exchange for leniency or special treatment for the witness. That’s a good standard to enforce if the state wants to exact lethal justice.

Another bill (SB 750) would outline a procedure drawing on scientific standards to establish whether a defendant had an intellectual disability that would rule out execution. The Supreme Court invoked “standards of decency” in a 2002 case, Atkins vs. Virginia, in barring execution of the mentally retarded, noting that most states had already done so. Yet since then, Texas lawmakers have neglected to devise a test for mental capacity, leaving it up to the courts. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals came up with criteria that invoked the character Lennie from Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men as the type of person who ought to be exempt.

Texas is outlier enough on capital punishment without using literature as a guide for who lives and who dies. It’s time for a legislative fix that removes Lennie from Texas law.

Bills in Austin that could improve capital justice
HB 189: Would bar use of snitch testimony in death penalty cases if obtained from a witness or accomplice in return for favorable treatment or leniency. By Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston

HB 261: Would require separate trials if prosecutors sought the death penalty for more than one person for the same crime. By Rep. Borris Miles, D-Houston

SB 87: Would require police to record interrogations of suspects in murders and other violent felonies and sex crimes. This could help combat the phenomenon of convictions based on false confessions. By Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston

SB 750: Would create a procedure for courts to establish whether a defendant’s mental deficiency ruled out execution. Finding would come from judge or jury before trial, based on scientific standards. By Ellis

SB 1270/HB 2614: Would bar imposition of a death sentence that was sought or obtained through racial bias. Coincides with Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins’ call for a racial justice law. By Sen. Royce West, Rep. Eric Johnson, both D-Dallas

SB 1292: Would require state to test all biological evidence in a murder case before seeking the death penalty. Would send a strong signal to prosecutors who might want to negotiate the matter. The bill has bipartisan support and the backing of GOP Attorney General Greg Abbott. By Ellis.

(Editorial, “With death penalty bans gaining steam, what’s next for Texas?” Dallas Morning News, March 20, 2013). See Recent Legislative Activity. Read more Editorials.