Thursday, January 14, 2010

Statesman: "it's time to address state's flawed system"

"Death penalty: With doubts raised, it's time to address state's flawed system," is the title of Austin American-Statesman's last editorial of 2009.

Like the overdue family chat about the uncle everybody knows is not quite right, it's time for Texas to talk about something many folks know is not quite right.

Whether you support or oppose the concept, there's no ignoring the serious problems in the execution of how we execute people. Eleven Texas death row inmates have been exonerated.

In 2009, we dealt with disturbing developments in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed in 2004 for the slaying of his three children in a fire.

A state-commissioned report said law-enforcement witnesses who offered key testimony "had poor understandings of fire science."

Does that mean Willingham was innocent? Not necessarily. But it does mean that something short of best available science was used.

Texans harbored doubts about the death penalty long before the Willingham controversy. A 2004 Scripps-Howard poll showed 75 percent of respondents favored capital punishment. But 70 percent thought Texas had executed an innocent person at some point.

A year later, legislators added a life-without-parole option in capital cases. There now are 226 inmates serving that sentence, an option between death and life with possible parole.

That option — and increased use of DNA evidence highlighting justice system fallibility — has contributed to a downward trend in death sentences. In fiscal 2009, only 5 percent of capital murder convictions led to death sentences, down from 24.4 percent in 1990.

Despite the changes, the death penalty remains a difficult topic for Texas politicians to discuss in a productive way.

"I think that frankly the people are probably ahead of many of the politicians, and one of the places you see that play out is in local races," said Steve Hall, founding director of the anti-death penalty StandDown Texas Project, noting the decrease in death penalty convictions in Dallas and Harris counties, due in part to relatively new district attorneys.

Is Texas ready to abolish the death penalty, a move New Mexico made last year? Doubtful. But Texans should be ready to address their belief (see poll numbers above) that innocent people have been executed.

We like Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis' "Innocence Protection Package," including measures to increase the reliability of surprisingly unreliable eyewitness identification of suspects and the establishment of an Innocence Commission to review questionable convictions.

The 2009 Legislature approved an advisory panel on wrongful convictions. We look forward to its report to the 2011 Legislature.

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