STUDY: Pervasive Rubberstamping by State Courts Undermines Legitimacy of Harris County, Texas Death Sentences

State-court factfinding by judges in Harris County, Texas death-penalty cases is "a sham" that "rubberstamps" the views of county prosecutors, according to a study of the county's capital post-conviction proceedings published in the May 2018 issue of the Houston Law Review. In The Problem of Rubber Stamping in State Capital Habeas Proceedings: A Harris County Case Study, researchers from the University of Texas School of Law Capital Punishment Center examined factfinding orders in 191 Harris County capital post-conviction proceedings in which factual issues were contested, and found that in 96% of the cases, Harris County judges adopted the county prosecutors' proposed findings of fact verbatim. In the vast majority of cases, judges signed the state’s proposed document without even changing the heading. Looking at the 21,275 individual factual findings that county prosecutors had proposed, the researchers discovered that 96% of the judicial findings were word-for-word what prosecutors had written. The study's authors—Capital Punishment Center Director and Judge Robert M. Parker Chair in Law Jordan M. Steiker, Center Co-Director and Clinical Professor James W. Marcus, and Clinical Fellow Thea J. Posel—identified two related state post-conviction practices that they say "undermine the accuracy and fairness of the death penalty" in the nation's most prolific county for executions: "the reluctance of state trial courts to conduct evidentiary hearings to resolve contested factual issues, and the wholesale adoption of proposed state fact-finding instead of independent state court decision-making." State post-conviction applications typically present affidavits from witnesses and experts containing evidence that could have been, but was not, presented at trial. This evidence may "relate[ ] to the accuracy of the conviction, including forensic, alibi, or eyewitness testimony; or the affidavits might highlight important [penalty-phase] mitigating evidence regarding the inmate’s psychiatric or psychological impairments, abused background, or redeeming qualities." The systemic rubberstamping rejects this evidence, often without any evidentiary hearing into contested factual issues. The "inadequate development of facts" caused by this "one-sided consideration of contested factual issues," the researchers say, "prevents Harris County post-conviction courts from enforcing federal constitutional norms." The sham state-court proceedings also lead to unreliable federal habeas corpus review of Harris County death sentences, the researchers said, "[b]ecause even rubberstamped findings receive deference in federal court." When federal habeas relief is denied and an execution occurs, "prosecutors and newspapers recount the many layers of review undertaken" in the case, notwithstanding the underlying reality that "those layers of review afforded no meaningful consideration of the inmate’s constitutional claims." The reality of rubberstamped state-court factfinding and illusory federal appellate review, they say, "undermines the legitimacy of Harris County executions."

The issue of rubberstamping is not limited to Harris County. On May 16, Texas executed Juan Castillo after a Bexar County judge denied him an evidentiary hearing on his claim that prosecutors had presented false testimony to secure his conviction. The judge adopted the prosecution's proposed findings and order verbatim—changing only the signature line on the order—without permitting Castillo's lawyers to submit proposed findings or to respond to the prosecution's submission. Alabama attempted to execute Doyle Hamm in February 2018 after state courts had adopted word-for-word an 89-page order written by the state attorney general's office one business day after receiving the prosecution's proposed order, without removing the word "proposed" from the title of the order.

(Jordan M. Steiker, James W. Marcus, and Thea J. Posel, "The Problem of Rubber Stamping in State Capital Habeas Proceedings: A Harris County Case Study," Houston Law Review, Volume 55, Number 4: Frankel Lecture 2018.) See Arbitrariness and Studies.