AUSTIN, Texas, Sept. 18, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The Texas Capital Punishment Assessment Team, organized by the American Bar Association (ABA), today issued a comprehensive report with recommendations to help ensure fairness and accuracy in the state's death penalty system.
"Evaluating Fairness and Accuracy in State Death Penalty Systems: The Texas Capital Punishment Assessment Report" is the culmination of a two-year review of Texas capital punishment laws, procedures and practices by an assessment team of former judges, prosecutors, elected officials, practitioners and legal scholars.
"A just system of capital punishment in our legal system requires procedures that ensure that only those deserving of the ultimate punishment are sentenced to death, and that the public have confidence in the adequacy of the criminal justice system to that task," said Jennifer Laurin, Professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, and chairwoman of the Assessment Team. "Texans cannot accept less than the strongest system of checks and balances to ensure that our capital punishment system is fair and minimizes the risk of wrongful convictions and unjust executions."
Former Gov. Mark White, who oversaw 19 executions during his term, said, "I know that no decision is as weighty or significant as whether or not to allow an execution to go forward" and that he is "pleased that this report brings into clear focus the current state of the death penalty system in Texas and recommends prompt action to protect the innocent and provide a fair and accurate system for every person who is sentenced to death."
Paul Coggins, former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas, noted that mistakes in the administration of the death penalty lead to serious public safety concerns with the innocent being convicted, possibly facing execution, while a guilty perpetrator remains free to commit additional crimes. Such a flawed process exacts an intangible toll on victims' families.
"State and federal courts spend significant time and resources correcting errors in capital cases – errors that could have been prevented – to the detriment of the vast majority of Texans who rely on the justice system every day. We can do better," Coggins said.
Recent reforms like the Michael Morton Act, improved handling of eyewitness identifications, and creation of new institutions like the Criminal Justice Integrity Unit, the Regional Public Defender for Capital Cases and the Office of Capital Writs have all strengthened capital punishment procedures in Texas.
Despite recent progress, assessment team members have identified a number of areas in which the state's death penalty system fall far short.
Notably, the Lone Star State appears out of step with better practices implemented in other capital jurisdictions, failing to rely upon scientifically reliable evidence and processes in the administration of the death penalty, and providing the public with inadequate information to understand and evaluate capital punishment in the state.
The nearly 500 page report states that the system could be helped with a myriad of reforms to correct short-comings in death penalty administration, including defense services, procedural restrictions and limitations on state post-conviction and federal habeas corpus proceedings, jury instructions, an independent judiciary, racial and ethnic minority representation, and mental retardation and mental illness.
Of the 500-page Report, team member and former Chairman of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Charlie Terrell noted, "This document catalogues numerous reasons why I asked to have my name taken off the death row unit in Huntsville."
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