Tuesday, December 30, 2008

DMN editorial: Death penalty moratorium needed

That's the title of Dec 29 editorial by Dallas Morning News calling for a death penalty moratorium in Texas. Last year DMN changed it's century old support of the capital punishment and called for the abolition of the death penalty in Texas.

The year draws to a close with Texas in its familiar No. 1 place nationally in capital punishment statistics (18 of the nation's 37 executions in 2008). It has also been a year rich with examples of why this state should stop its error-prone machinery of death.

For a change, discussion about flawed justice need not start in Dallas County, the nation's ground zero for DNA exonerations. Just to the north, Collin County illustrates how even a highly educated, affluent community can get it wildly wrong in the high-stakes gamble called capital punishment.

No murder case more nauseated North Texas than the 1993 strangulation of 7-year-old Ashley Estell after she was plucked from a Plano city park. A Collin County jury deliberated only 27 minutes before convicting serial molester Michael Blair of capital murder. It took far longer – 14 years – for the truth to fully emerge. DNA and other forensic tests undermined the case so thoroughly that a judge dismissed the conviction this summer.

In a second discredited case, evidence has never been a question. Rather, it took 18 years for the truth to emerge about an illicit sexual affair that the trial judge had been having with Collin County District Attorney Tom O'Connell, who personally asked jurors for the death sentence. The double murder conviction against Charles Dean Hood raised serious questions of corrupted ethics this summer, and the courts have yet to address it.

There is no quick or neat fix for breakdowns in justice that range from poor technology to dishonesty among officers of the court. Dozens of DNA exonerations across the state – including the nation-leading 19 in Dallas County – have demonstrated how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be. Further, statistics indicate a disturbing arbitrariness of capital punishment, varying greatly by county. Data also show that a killer is far likelier to die for killing a white person.

It's notable that a veteran state lawmaker from conservative Collin County, Plano's Brian McCall, is sufficiently concerned about the justice system that he favors a two-year moratorium on executions in Texas. Mr. McCall is a Republican with law-and-order bona fides, having authored legislation in 1994 creating the state's first criminal DNA database.

That tool has achieved its primary objective of helping law enforcement officials identify culprits and solve crimes. It has also offered new perspective on how much more reform our system of laws requires before we can be confident that fatal error will never occur in Huntsville's busy death chamber.

It's the view of this newspaper that the justice system will never be foolproof and, therefore, use of the death penalty is never justified.

Mr. McCall comes at the question differently, asserting the deterrent benefits of capital punishment and arguing at the same time for better safeguards against bias and failure.

On the need for better safeguards, this newspaper finds common ground with Mr. McCall. On the need for a hiatus in Huntsville, we hope lawmakers who convene in Austin next year will find the courage confront the issue. READ MORE about why this newspaper reversed its 100-plus years of support for the death penalty.


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