A committee in the legislature of the nation's number one execution state is set to take up the issue of the death penalty on Tuesday, March 29. The Texas House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence will hold a hearing Tuesday March 29 on several death penalty related bills, including a moratorium on executions (HB 1641 by Dutton), abolition of the death penalty (HB 852 by Dutton and HB 819 by Farrar), prohibiting death sentences in Law of Parties cases (HB 855 and HB 2511 both by Dutton) and requiring separate trials in capital cases (HB 2200 by Miles).
Clarence Brandley, an innocent person who spent ten years on Texas death row, will testify in favor of abolishing the death penalty as well as for a moratorium on executions. Brandley is traveling to Austin for the hearing as a member of Witness to Innocence.
The committee hearing will be held in room 120 of the John H. Reagan Building at 105 W. 15th Street in Austin in the capitol complex. The meeting is expected to start around 2 PM, shortly after adjournment of the Texas House.
The committee is composed of 6 Republicans and three Democrats. The chair of the Committee is Democrat Pete Gallego.
The death penalty in Texas has come under increasing criticism in the state's newspapers. The Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle and Austin American-Statesman have all endorsed abolishing the death penalty. Texas Monthly, a widely read state magazine, in January endorsed a moratorium on executions.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission is expected to issue a long-delayed report in April in the case of Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas in 2004 after being convicted based on now-discredited forensic evidence.
Former Governor Mark White has told me that he will send a letter to the members of the Committee in support of HB 1641, the bill that would establish a moratorium on executions and create a death penalty study commission. Governor White will not attend the hearing in person.
Charlie Terrell, former chairman of the Texas Criminal Justice Department, has written a letter to the members of the Committee in support of HB 1641. In his letter dated March 28, 2011, Mr Terrell wrote that he favors the death penalty "for certain heinous crimes", but that he is "writing to support the bill as a matter of common sense. Texas does not need to be executing innocent people and what harm does a moratorium do?"
Mr Terrell says he supports a moratorium because several years ago he had become "concerned about mistakes and errors in the system." He wrote, "My concerns were fairness to those convicted on the limited testimony of witnesses, racial fairness in some areas of our state, the absence of DNA testing where it was possible to do so, and my belief that a sentence of life without the possibility of parole is far worse than a death sentence for young offenders".
Texas runs the risk of executing an innocent person because of the pace of executions in Texas and the many flaws in the system that can lead to innocent people being wrongfully convicted. Rep Dutton's sensible proposal is for a two year pause in executions so that a death penalty study commission can examine the system during a time when there are no executions being conducted. Under the current system, innocent people are at risk of execution in Texas. A two year moratorium and a comprehensive examination of the system should be a common sense reaction to the case of Anthony Graves, an innocent man who was released on October 27, 2010 after spending many years on death row in Texas awaiting execution for a crime he did not commit.
The Texas House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence will also hear testimony Tuesday on bills arising out of the case of Kenneth Foster, Jr. HB 2200 was filed by State Rep. Borris Miles to require separate trials in capital cases. HB 2511 was filed by State Rep Harold Dutton. In addition to the separate trials requirement, Dutton's HB 2511 also contains a provision prohibiting death sentences in Law of Parties cases.
The issue of separate trials arose after Governor Rick Perry commuted the death sentence of Kenneth Foster, Jr in 2007. At the time, Perry issued a press release citing the issue that Foster had been tried together with his co-defendant as a reason for his decision to commute the death sentence. “After carefully considering the facts of this case, along with the recommendations from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, I believe the right and just decision is to commute Foster’s sentence from the death penalty to life imprisonment,” Gov. Perry said. “I am concerned about Texas law that allows capital murder defendants to be tried simultaneously, and it is an issue I think the legislature should examine.”
The father and grandfather of Kenneth Foster Jr will testify at the committee hearing on Tuesday.
For more information on the death penalty in Texas, visit the blog of Texas Moratorium Network.