- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 13, 2014

San Antonio Express-News. May 8, 2014.

Time to enact moratoriums on executions

The botched execution by lethal injection in Oklahoma recently is instructive on how the words “humane” and “execution” in the same sentence can be extremely problematic.

But no matter how you feel about the death penalty, perhaps all can agree on a few items.

First, the public should have high confidence that those on death row committed the crimes for which they were sentenced. Second, that the process by which a state executes a person should be as transparent as possible.

Texas can improve on both.

The American Bar Association recently reviewed how Texas administers capital punishment. Its bottom line: “Texas appears out of step with better practices implemented in other capital jurisdictions.”

The state has made strides. For instance, last year’s Michael Morton Act forces prosecutors to share exculpatory evidence with the defense. And, yet, shortcomings persist.

Texas should adopt laws requiring that “the entire case file, including investigation notes, should be disclosed to defense counsel with limited exception for a particularized showing of need for protection of witnesses.”

Morton spent 25 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He wasn’t on death row, but no one can say with confidence that among the 273 people awaiting execution in Texas aren’t those denied a proper defense because of the same or other error.

And there’s something in Texas about who is targeted that raises a red flag. Roughly 41 percent of those on death row are African-Americans though they are only 12.3 percent of the state population. And there is ample evidence that Texas has already executed innocent men.

Roadblocks still exist for access to DNA evidence.

Texas, for instance, doesn’t require indefinite preservation of biological evidence in violent felony cases, “although the commission of a violent felony in the past can affect the decision to sentence a person to death,” says the ABA.

Texas created the Regional Public Defender for Capital Cases in 2007 to represent indigent capital defendants and the Office of Capital Writs in 2009 to represent indigents sentenced to death during habeas proceedings.

But four Texas counties account for about half of all death sentences, Bexar among them. The others are Harris, Dallas and Tarrant. They don’t use these offices for capital cases.

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