Monday, December 15, 2008

Death penalty system fatally flawed

Thats the title of Sam Milsap's column in the San Antonio Express-News.

According to a report released last week by the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty — Texas Death Penalty Developments in 2008: The Year in Review — this year Texas juries condemned the fewest number of people to death in more than 30 years.

As of Dec. 10, a total of 10 people (nine men and one woman) had been sentenced to death in Texas in 2008.

Perhaps this reflects the public's growing uneasiness with the death penalty or prosecutors' recognition that the costs of the ultimate punishment — both human and financial — are too high. Or perhaps my fellow Texans have come to share my realization that a fallible system that puts people to death simply cannot be trusted.

Evidence of misplaced trust in the death penalty system was on stark display on Aug. 25, when a Collin County court dismissed all charges against death row inmate Michael Blair for the 1993 rape and murder of 7-year-old Ashley Estell.

After the results of new DNA testing failed to connect him to the crime, those involved in the case agreed that there was not enough evidence to uphold the conviction. Blair had spent 14 years on death row. Michael Blair was the fourth person exonerated from death row nationally in 2008 and the 130th overall since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

DNA played a role in just 17 of these cases. Blair is the ninth person exonerated from death row in Texas.

Such willingness to admit a mistake has come too late for several inmates who claimed to be innocent of the crimes for which they were executed.

In an interesting turn of events, the Texas Forensic Science Commission agreed this past August to a request from the Innocence Project to investigate the possibility of misconduct in the arson case of Cameron Todd Willingham.

Willingham was convicted in 1991 of setting a fire that killed his three daughters; he was executed by the State of Texas in 2004. According to the Innocence Project, a panel of leading experts later determined that the fire was not arson and that forensic experts at the time of Willingham's trial should have known that the fire was an accident. The commission will investigate the faulty forensic analysis used to convict Willingham.

Similar analysis was used in 2004 to exonerate Ernest Ray Willis, who had spent 17 years on Texas' death row for a crime that did not occur. Should the results of this investigation rule out arson, it will further undermine the credibility and integrity of the Texas death penalty system — though clearly too late to benefit Mr. Willingham.

In another Texas case, that of Carlos De Luna, a documentary film released earlier this year continued to call into question his guilt. “At the Death House Door” is based on an in-depth inquiry by journalists with the Chicago Tribune. To date, no official investigation has taken place, although strong evidence points to another suspect in the crime (now deceased) for which De Luna was executed 19 years ago.

We cannot sanction a death penalty system that gets it right most of the time. An honest assessment of the problems associated with the death penalty is long overdue.

I urge Texas lawmakers to consider the cases of Cameron Todd Willingham, Carlos De Luna, Michael Blair, Ernest Ray Willis and others when they reconvene in January and to recognize the ultimate fallibility of a system that no longer deserves our trust... or our support.

When it comes to human life, a system that gets it right most of the time should not exist at all.

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