Whether one supports or opposes the death penalty, I believe most Texans expect our system of administering the ultimate punishment to be just and fair. Last session, in order to give lawmakers an opportunity to examine and enact reforms in the system, I introduced a resolution that would have allowed the people of Texas to vote on a constitutional amendment to give the governor the authority to impose a temporary moratorium on executions. The legislation, which passed out of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, was held up in the Calendars Commit-tee and never made it to the House floor for a vote.
Several moratorium proposals were favorably recommended by House and Senate committees. This came as a surprise to many legislative observers, but not to those who listened to the public testimony. Religious leaders, victims of crime, Texans whose innocence had freed them from death row, and attorneys both for and against the death penalty testified in support of a moratorium.
The 77th Legislature recognized that our criminal justice system needs repair, and the process of reform was begun. We passed laws to provide post-conviction access to DNA testing and establish minimum standards for indigent defense. We also passed legislation banning the execution of persons with mental retardation, a measure widely supported by Texans. Of the five states that passed similar legislation last year, only the governor of Texas vetoed the measure.
Texas has executed 271 men and women since reintroducing the death penalty in 1976. That represents more than one-third of the state-sanctioned executions that have been carried out in America. Two years ago, Texas executed forty, breaking the record for the number of persons executed by one state in one year. The relentless pace and growing concern about the fairness of the system disturbs many Texans.
Recent events should compel lawmakers to empower the governor to suspend executions in Texas while essential reforms are considered. Two years ago, the Republican governor of Illinois, George Ryan, imposed a moratorium on executions in that state. He was prompted to do this when thirteen men on Illinois’ death row were found to have been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death under a statute the governor had worked to pass.
The blue-ribbon panel Governor Ryan appointed to find out why innocent people ended up on death row issued its report last month. The commission, composed of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law professors and citizens, made 85 specific proposals aimed at strengthening Illinois’ criminal justice system. Last week, the state of Maryland imposed a moratorium on executions while lawmakers review whether or not racial bias plays an unintended role in how the death penalty is applied.
Furthermore, in April, the 100th person in the United States who had spent time on death row, walked out of prison in Arizona, a free man because his innocence had finally been proved. Last month, the 101st innocent person was released from death row, this time in Pennsylvania. Seven people have been released in Texas on grounds of actual innocence. They had spent between seven and fifteen years on death row.
To quote Sam Millsap, the former district attorney of Bexar County: “Our system in Texas is broken. Until it is fixed and we are satisfied that only the guilty can be put to death, there should be no more executions in Texas.”
Texas policymakers should review the Illinois commission report. The Chicago Tribune, which had written extensively on problems in that state prior to the moratorium, later turned its focus on Texas. The paper indicated that “the problems plaguing Illinois are equally pronounced in Texas and additional flaws undermine the state’s administration of society’s ultimate punishment.”
Texas’ application of the death penalty is riddled with systemic problems. From an appeals court that believes a sleeping lawyer can provide adequate legal representation to a clemency system that has been universally criticized, there is a long list of flaws in Texas that needs to be addressed. The Legislature should adopt a joint resolution that authorizes a constitutional amendment giving the governor the authority to declare a temporary moratorium on executions in Texas.
Elliott Naishtat is the State Representative from Austin.