Life-without-parole inmate Juan Leonardo Quintero. courtesy Houston Chronicle Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court had delivered twin blows to the administration of the death penalty. The Supremes ruled in 2002 that executing mentally retarded inmates violated the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Three years later, they used the same rationale to prohibit the execution of inmates who had committed capital murder before their 18th birthdays. “What we began seeing in polling data was a re-thinking of public support for the death penalty,” Dieter says. “A majority of people still supported it, but not the overwhelming majority that we were used to seeing.” “You know there’s a shift in attitude in Texas when a Houston jury sentences an illegal immigrant who shoots a police officer four times in the back of the head to any thing other than death.” Evidence of that re-thinking manifested in Texas with a dramatic drop in the number of convicted killers being sentenced to death. In 2005, 14 death sentences were handed down, the fewest in nearly a decadeand less than half of what the state had been averaging since the 1980s. Steve Hall, who runs the StandDown Texas Project, which has long pushed for a moratorium on executions in the state, says it’s hard to pinpoint a single reason for that decline. But he echoes a line of argument that attorneys often use in their efforts to exempt youthful offenders and those with diminished mental capacity. “I don’t know that I would call it exactly an ‘evolving standard of decency:” Hall says, “though perhaps that captures it:’ That standard, he believes, has filtered down to many of the district attorneys who prosecute capital cases, as well as to the jurors who ultimately determine punishment. During the 2005 debate on Lucio’s fourth attempt to pass life-without-parole laws, most of the state’s urban prosecutors remained entrenched in oppositionat least publicly. “My problem is [juries] might use it as a compromise instead of reaching a true decision:’ Roe Wilson, an assistant district attorney in Harris County, told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee in March 2005. But by that time, Lucio had put together a bipartisan coalition of key lawmakers, including Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, and Sen. Chris Harris, a hard-line conservative from Arlington. Pivotal to Lucio’s argument were the well-documented flaws in death sentences around the country, along with his long-held assertion that life-without-parole sentences would spare crime victims’ families the agony of reliving their tragedies each time a death row inmate attempted an eleventh-hour appeal. “It still gives victims’ families the closure they need:’ Lucio says, “but it doesn’t put them through that endless appeals process.” Lucio says that “a lot of people who opposed my bill said I was trying to undermine the death penalty. The truth is, it was all these false convictions and exonerations that were undermining the death penalty.” Hall says that Gov. Rick Perry, an ardent death-penalty supporter who has allowed more than 200 executions since taking office eight years ago, provided some cover to his fellow Republicans in the Legislature. In May 2004, the notoriously hard-line Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles had recommended that condemned inmate Kelsey Patterson be spared execution on grounds that he was severely mentally ill. Perry rejected their suggestion that Patterson’s sentence be commuted to life in prison, but his rationale was significant. “Governor Perry said at the time, ‘Texas has no life-without-parole sentencing option, and no one can guarantee this defendant would never be freed to commit other crimes were his sentence commuted:” says Hall, who has so far been unable to persuade legislative leaders to debate a moratorium proposal introduced by Rep. Elliott Naishtat. “I think Governor Perry, in saying that, was sending a clear message to the Legislature that he would sign a life-without-parole bill that landed on his desk.” A year later, he did. NOVEMBER 28, 2008 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15
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