Death Penalty on Trial

The first day of an unusual hearing on the constitutionality of the death penalty in Texas got underway in a downtown Houston courtroom. Lawyers in a capital murder case hope to show how the death penalty creates a risk for innocent people. Pat Hernandez has more.

Thanks to attorneys for John Edward Green Jr., capital punishment in Texas is being put under the microscope for the next 2 weeks. Green faces the death penalty if he’s found guilty in the murder of a woman during a robbery
in 2008. Lawyers want to convince state district Judge Kevin Fine that capital punishment, and how it is administered in Texas is unconstitutional.

Prosecutors say the issues being debated are a matter of settled case law and have no relevance in Green’s case.

Richard Deter was the first to take the stand. He’s with the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, DC.
He testified how Texas ranked third behind Florida and Illinois, in the number of death penalty convictions overturned with 12, since 1973.

“Texas may not be the leading state, but it’s hard to know whether that means that cases haven’t been found, or that the twelve represents all of the mistakes. It’s not clear. Texas has executed far more than anyone else, 464 executions, and we can only hope that some of those people weren’t innocent. Although it appears that probably some were.”

Deter says more death penalty exonerations in Florida and Illinois don’t necessarily mean they made more mistakes or that they do a more thorough job. He says what it does show is that in all of the states including Texas, there is a high risk of mistakes, from inadequate representation, withheld evidence to witnesses recanting testimony. He calls the hearing historic.

“To begin with, even the U.S. Supreme Court has not fully grappled with the issue of innocence, and we are in a new era. Because of the developments in science, we know that many more mistakes have been made than was thought to be the case.”

The hearing was called by judge Fine. Last Spring he granted a defense motion and declared the state’s death penalty law unconstitutional. He later rescinded the ruling and ordered the hearing. Before it began, members of
the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement let everyone know what was about to take place.

Gloria Rubac and protesters“We’re here today to say stop the executions, and let’s look at what’s going on with this criminal justice system that is not working.”

This is spokeswoman Gloria Rubac:

“This motion, apparently is routinely submitted for every capital murder case and routinely denied. So, who knew that this judge was gonna say ‘oh, well yeah.’ I mean, the motion itself is 81 pages and it is filled with facts. 14 reasons why the Texas statutes are unconstitutional.”

Rubac admits it will take more than a ruling from Judge Fine that would overturn capital punishment in Texas. Experts from all over the country will take the stand during the 2-week hearing.