Texas Court Stays Execution for Fourth Time to Study DNA Evidence

On January 30, a Texas judge stayed the execution of Larry Swearingen, scheduled for February 27. Swearingen's lawyers argued more time was required to complete DNA testing agreed to by the prosecution, which they believe will prove his innocence. This is the fourth such delay he has received. Five forensic experts have concluded that the decomposition of the victim’s body shows she was killed while Swearingen was in jail on unrelated charges, thereby pointing to his innocence. The attorneys are also asking for additional DNA testing. In 2011, changes to the state’s DNA-testing law allowed new testing for evidence not previously analyzed and for evidence that was tested but can now be re-examined with newer technology. Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, who is representing Swearingen, said, ”The Texas Legislature has made it clear that DNA testing should be allowed when there is a possibility it could help prove innocence, and the testing Mr. Swearingen is seeking could shed light on many unanswered questions in this case.”

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RACE: Dallas District Attorney Supports Racial Justice Act for Texas

Dallas County (Texas) District Attorney Craig Watkins said he plans to advocate for a state law to allow death row inmates to appeal their conviction or sentence using studies showing that racial bias affected the process. Such laws have been passed in North Carolina and Kentucky and are referred to as a "Racial Justice Act." Watkins said, “Throughout history, race has unfortunately played a part, an ugly part, in our criminal justice system. This is an opportunity for us to address not only the past, and those individuals who are still being affected by the disparities in treatment, but also in looking forward to make sure that we don’t have those same disparities in our criminal justice system.” A 2008 study in Texas conducted by a University of Denver professor revealed that black defendants in Harris County, which includes Houston, were more likely to receive the death penalty than white defendants. Watkins added, “I’m just of the opinion that if we’re going to seek it that it has to be fairly administrated. No matter where you come from, what you look like, it has to be fairly administrated.”

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NEW VOICES: Arkansas Governor Reverses Position on Death Penalty

Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe recently said he would sign legislation outlawing the death penalty if legislators were to send him such a bill. Beebe ran for governor as a supporter of capital punishment, but said the experience of signing a death warrant for the first time caused his thinking on the issue to change. “It is an agonizing process, whether you're for the death penalty or against the death penalty," the governor said. "Everybody can claim they're for it until you're actually the person who's got to sign it." Arkansas has not had an execution since 2005, and has only sentenced one new person to death in the last two years. In 2012, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down the state’s execution law after finding problems with how the lethal injection drugs used in executions were selected.

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LEGISLATION: Maryland Governor Makes Death Penalty Repeal a Priority

On January 15 at a press conference with leaders of the NAACP, Maryland's Governor Martin O'Malley announced he will be making the repeal of capital punishment a priority in the upcoming legislative session and will submit a repeal bill to the legislature later this week. Among the concerns about the death penalty expressed by the governor were its high costs and the lack of any benefit to society: “Is it worth wasting taxpayer dollars on a policy that does not work?”  Senate President Mike Miller, who supports the death penalty, said the bill will be given a vote in the full Senate and will likely pass this year. Maryland has not had an execution or death sentence since 2005, and the state's lethal injection procedures have not been approved by the courts.

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EDITORIALS: "Florida's Death Penalty Needs a Fresh Look"

A recent editorial in Florida’s Tampa Bay Times called for lawmakers to study the state’s death penalty because of its high number of exonerations and death sentences. Using information from DPIC's recent 2012 Year End Report, the editorial noted that 2012 marked the second consecutive year in which the state led the country in new death sentences. The editorial suggested that one of the reasons for these numbers was likely Florida's failure to require a unanimous jury recommendation for death sentences, one of the few states in the country with such a policy. While implying that the better path might be complete abolition of the death penalty, the editorial called for changes in the sentencing process, saying that its current procedures are haphazard and error-prone.  The paper concluded, “Florida is long overdue for a comprehensive look at its death penalty system… It is time to better understand why the state imposes the penalty disproportionately and ends up exonerating so many. Basic justice demands it.”  Read the full editorial below.

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Many States to Consider Death Penalty Abolition and Reform in 2013

As legislative sessions begin across the country, legislators in several states have proposed bills to abolish or reform the death penalty in 2013. In Alabama, Sen. Hank Sanders will introduce bills to abolish the death penalty, or alternatively to institute a series of reforms. “I believe the death penalty is not only unproductive but counter-productive,” he said. Texas will also consider a number of death penalty reform bills, including restrictions on certain types of evidence, and the creation of an innocence commission. Colorado Sen. Claire Levy is drafting a bill to abolish the death penalty. "We have increasing concerns about the possibility of executing an innocent person," said Levy. Kentucky Rep. Carl Rollins plans to propose a bill to replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. In Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley has voiced support for a bill to end the death penalty and direct some of the money saved to murder victims' families. New Hampshire's Gov. Margaret Hassan also supports abolition, and a bill is likely to be introduced in that state. In Oregon, where Gov. John Kitzhaber instituted a moratorium on executions for the remainder of his term, Rep. Mitch Greenlick plans to introduce a bill beginning the process of abolishing the death penalty.

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