Debate over death penalty gears up

Texas, where more inmates were executed last year but fewer people were actually sentenced to die, is in the spotlight as lawmakers, judges, even community leaders in Italy are calling for change to the state’s ultimate punishment.

As Texas continues to lead the nation in executions, the country’s highest court plans to review three state death-penalty cases, and elected leaders may call for reform.

“Texas generally has treated the death penalty as routine,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “It’s finally dawning on the Texas public officials that … they’re way behind the national thinking on the use of death penalty, the way it’s used and the people who are eligible for it.

If you support the death penalty, you are an
accessory to murder.

“Texas has been such a frequent user of the death penalty that some of the pressure of public opinion and the courts is beginning to come.”

There are 390 inmates on Death Row in Texas, including 24 convicted in Tarrant County, state records show.

Death penalty issues ahead include:

U.S. Supreme Court: The court is scheduled to review three Texas cases Jan. 17. Some say the number of cases is high because the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court have not heeded directions given in the past by the Supreme Court.

The cases: LaRoyce Smith, convicted of the 1991 killing of Jennifer Soto in DeSoto during an attempted robbery; Jalil Abdul-Kabir, convicted of the 1987 killing of Raymond Carl Richardson during an attempted robbery in San Angelo; and Brent Ray Brewer, convicted of the 1990 robbing and killing of Robert Doyle Laminack in Amarillo.

The Supreme Court will review such issues in these cases as jury directions, mitigating evidence and whether lower courts followed the Supreme Court’s precedent.

Texas Legislature: At least one lawmaker could file death-penalty bills for the session that begins Tuesday. State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said he may file a bill to create an innocence commission, which would look for problems in the criminal justice system regarding wrongful convictions.

Ellis also is considering filing measures to allow for better access to DNA testing and to let the governor grant multiple reprieves when a person’s guilt is in doubt.

At the same time, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst campaigned last year on a plan to sentence to death repeat sex offenders who prey on children younger than 14, even if no child dies.

International pressure: Fort Worth’s oldest sister city, Reggio Emilia, Italy, has asked local leaders at least twice to denounce capital punishment. Fort Worth officials refused when the issue first came up in 2001, despite the Italian leaders’ threats to sever cultural ties. Reggio Emilia officials repeated the request during a visit last year.

While Reggio officials were in Texas, they visited Death Row inmate Michael Toney, who was convicted for the 1985 Thanksgiving Day bombing in Lake Worth that killed three people.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals last year ruled that newly discovered evidence was sufficient to warrant further review of Toney’s case.

In Italy, Tuscany schoolchildren carried on a 10-year pen pal relationship with Texan Gregory Summers until he was executed in October. Summers was on Death Row for hiring a hit man to kill a family in Abilene, but the children had pleaded for a reprieve. Summers had said he wanted to be buried in Tuscany in a white coffin signed by the children. By December, his body had been shipped to Pisa and buried. His headstone says, “Innocence has many names” and “May God’s justice embrace you, innocent one.”

Death penalty and executions: Fourteen Texas defendants convicted of capital murder were sentenced to die between Sept. 1, 2005, and Aug. 31, 2006, the lowest number in at least 30 years, a report from the Office of Court Administration shows.

Some say fewer death sentences may be given in Texas since the state began offering life without parole as a sentencing option in September 2005.

Last year, 24 people — including two from Tarrant County — were executed, compared with 19 in 2005 and 23 in 2004, state records show.

Criminal justice officials say the number of executions fluctuates each year, depending on the appeals process.

Opponents say: Foes are glad attention is focusing on the death penalty, something they want eliminated as soon as possible.

“Clearly the ultimate goal is to end the death penalty in the free world,” said Rick Halperin, a member and past president of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. “Whatever people feel about it … the process of ending the death penalty has begun.

“There will come a time in the not-so-distant future when we look back on America with the death penalty and shake our heads,” he said. “It is coming.”

Supporters say: Death-penalty advocates say the punishment needs to exist in Texas.

“There will always be a focus on the death penalty. And the pendulum shifts from one end to the other,” said William “Rusty” Hubbarth, vice president for legislative affairs for Justice For All, a victim’s advocacy group based in Houston. “Right now, it seems to be shifting toward not so much elimination but limitation.

“There’s a concept of responsibility for one’s actions,” he said. “The most heinous sanction should be used for those who commit the most heinous crimes.”


Texas has executed more people than any other state — 379 — since the death penalty was re-enacted in 1976. Before then, there were 755.

The last Tarrant County person executed was 28-year-old Lamont Reese on June 20, 2006. Reese, 28, was convicted of the March 1, 1999, shootings outside a convenience store on South Riverside Drive that left three men dead and a man and a teenage boy wounded.

Executions since 1976 379
Executions before 1976 755
Is life without parole an option? yes
People freed from Texas’ Death Row 8
Clemencies granted 2
Method of execution lethal injection

SOURCE: Death Penalty Information Center

Staff writer Max B. Baker contributed to this report.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday January 4, 2007.
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