Texas Considers Death Penalty Reforms

041801, Sen. Rodney Ellis, death penalty, MGS
Texas, which has built a reputation for coddling no criminals and offering precious little mercy, is suddenly moving to add safeguards to its legal system.

The 2000 presidential campaign threw a spotlight on the criminal justice system in George W. Bush's home state, focusing attention on questionable convictions, sleeping lawyers, and the speed with which America's No. 1 death penalty state executes inmates.

Over the past couple of weeks, the Legislature has taken up some of those issues.

Inmates have won easier access to post-conviction DNA testing. The state Senate has approved an overhaul of the indigent-defense system, calling for better-trained court-appointed attorneys and, for the first time, kicking in state money for lawyers to represent poor defendants.

Other measures under consideration include a ban on executing retarded killers, the option of a life-without-parole sentence for murder, increased compensation for wrongly imprisoned inmates and even a two-year moratorium on the death penalty.

"This is a big death penalty reform period. Proposals are being considered around the country," said Columbia University law professor Jim Liebman.

"There's also a sense that some of the important mechanisms for assuring reliability in Texas haven't been functioning well, a sense that Texas has not always provided all the procedures it should," said Liebman.

Some of those supporting the Texas legislation are foes of the death penalty. But others are ardent supporters of capital punishment who want to insulate the death penalty against claims of error.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Houston Democrat and supporter of the death penalty, has helped lead reform efforts. "Although the presidential campaign is behind us, the spotlight won't go away," Ellis said. "Our criminal justice system is broken. And it needs to be repaired."

The DNA bill was the first step. Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who supports the death penalty, declared the issue an emergency this legislative session. He signed it into law April 5.

"Justice should not only be swift, but in all cases fair," said Perry, who notes the measure could help prove inmates' guilt as well as set some free.

The DNA bill was sponsored by a Republican in the Senate and a Democrat in the House. And GOP lawmakers threw their support behind Ellis' indigent-defense bill when it passed the Senate last week with no opposition. The measure now goes to the House.

A 2000 study by the nonpartisan Texas Appleseed Fair Defense Project found that defendants sometimes wait months before getting a lawyer, who may be poorly trained and woefully underpaid for the work.

Under the bill, the state would contribute $19.7 million to provide legal counsel for the poor - something that traditionally has been paid for by counties.

The bill also requires lawyers to meet minimum standards of expertise. Two years ago, Bush vetoed similar leislation.

"It's clearly the biggest step that's been taken in the history of this state in modernizing indigent defense procedures," said Bill Beardall, director of the Texas Appleseed project.

"The state is starting to recognize its responsibility to provide representation for indigent defendants," said the director.

Other issues promise more struggles.

Democrats on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee outvoted Republicans 4-3 last week to put a two-year death penalty moratorium before Texas voters in November.

The governor opposes a moratorium, and getting the two-thirds votes necessary from the House and Senate to put it before voters will be difficult.

Since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume, 706 inmates have been executed in the United States, and Texas has had the most by far: 245, including 152 under Bush.

Texas executed 40 inmates in 2000, the most in a single year by any state in U.S. history. Six people have been put to death this year.

The death penalty still enjoys strong support in Texas.

A survey released in December found 72 percent supported the death penalty, down from 81 percent in 1994. However, a poll released last June found that 57 percent of those surveyed believe Texas has put an innocent person to death.

Current Texas law allows juries only two options for a capital murder conviction: the death penalty or a life sentence that allows the chance of parole after 40 years.

Democratic state Sen. Eddie Lucio, who supports the death penalty, sponsored the life-without-parole option. Juries should have the third option so that they can be certain that a defendant will never be put back out on the streets, he said.

Texas is one of the few states that permit the execution of retarded inmates. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether such executions violate the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Ellis said Texas should ban the practice without waiting for the high court.

"Just as we don't execute children in Texas, at least so far, we shouldn't execute people who have the mind of a child," he said.

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