Justice is not always easy to come by in Texas, particularly for death-row inmates who have to depend on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for a review of their cases.
This state's highest appeals court for criminal cases consistently ignores justice, even when the evidence of injustice is clear. True to its recent history, the court last week rejected two appeals from condemned inmates whose trials were travesties of justice.
The most ardent death penalty advocate understands that a capital murder proceeding must guarantee a fair trial. One of the strongest arguments against capital punishment in Texas is that the judicial system is so broken that innocent defendants can be condemned and executed.
Last week's rulings by the Court of Criminal Appeals provided more evidence for those who hold that view. In separate rulings, the court upheld the convictions of Jose Ernesto Medellin and Daniel Acker, 2 convicted murderers who had clearly inadequate defense attorneys at their trials.
Neither Acker nor Medellin is a model citizen, and the crimes they were convicted of are horrible. Acker was found guilty of killing his girlfriend in Hopkins County, and Medellin was convicted and condemned for the rape and murder of two teenage girls in Houston.
Nevertheless, even the most despicable defendant should be afforded competent counsel at trial. In fact, the more heinous the crime, the more the state should ensure the defendant has a good lawyer and a fair trial. That was not the case for Acker and Medellin.
Last month, American-Statesman reporter Chuck Lindell detailed the horrendous appeal filed by Acker's court-appointed attorney, Greenville lawyer Toby Wilkinson. The appeal was largely taken from a ranting letter Acker had written. Also, Wilkinson's writ was filled with errors.
That didn't matter to the appeals court judges, who rejected the appeal without mention of the awful condition of Wilkinson's writ.
Medellin's case went all the way to the International Court of Justice in the Hague and provoked a memorandum from President Bush. News reports focused on the Texas appeals court's admonishing the president for overstepping his authority under the Constitution's separation of powers doctrine, but the heart of the issue is still ineffective counsel.
Medellin is a Mexican national, one of 51 Mexicans on death row in the United States that the international court said deserved reconsideration and review because they had not contacted their consuls. Bush last year directed state courts to abide by the ruling of the United Nations' court.
The Texas judges didn't like that, and in denying Medellin's appeal, wrote that the president had overstepped his authority. Perhaps, but that ignores the fact that Medellin's 1994 trial was flawed. His court-appointed defense attorney was suspended from practicing law during the trial for ethical violations, and he failed to call any witnesses during the punishment phase.
International treaties should ensure fairness for everyone. Americans arrested abroad most certainly want to be able to contact their government officials and be assured a fair trial. Their rights can only be secured as long as foreign nationals arrested and tried in this country are afforded those same considerations.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals continues to ignore justice and common sense, and it has been admonished for its untenable rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is where these 2 cases are inevitably headed.
Support for capital punishment in Texas wanes a little each year, in no small part because cases like Acker's and Medellin's raise so much doubt in the public mind about the system's fairness. It is essential that anyone on trial for his life have competent counsel and a fair trial. But that isn't happening in Texas because the Court of Criminal Appeals neglects its duty.
Source: Editorial, Austin American-Statesman
Monday, November 20, 2006
Texas appeals court does not ensure justice
Austin American Statesman has another great editorial about the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Statesman earlier called for the abolition of Court of Criminal appeals and giving the charge to Texas Supreme Court: