Other Voices

Some changes would improve the death penalty process

The gurney in the Texas death chamber in Huntsville.
The gurney in the Texas death chamber in Huntsville. AP

There is little common ground between those who favor the death penalty and those who want to abolish it.

Still, if we assume that only guilty people should be punished and that taxpayers want to save money, the system can be improved.

Cost is always an issue. In 1992, The Dallas Morning News calculated that the cost of an average Texas execution was $2.3 million compared to $750,000 for life imprisonment.

Since 1992, the costs of lawyers, extra time in jury selection, inmate housing and appeals have risen substantially.

Data reported by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice show Tarrant County has had 38 offenders executed since 1976, the fourth-most in the state.

Dallas County ranks second with 55 executed, while nearby Parker County has had two and Denton County six. Johnson and Hood Counties have not fulfilled a death penalty sentence since 1976.

Some suggestions:

▪ Videotape all confessions. Many states and the U.S. Department of Justice already require this, but not Texas.

According to the Innocence Project, false confessions were a factor in 25 percent of convictions overturned after DNA testing.

Younger offenders, those who have mental or emotional handicaps, those “under the influence” or faced with law enforcement pressure have all falsely confessed. In the past, videotape would have been costly and cumbersome, but smart phones, tablets and the like have foreclosed any excuses.

▪ Require regional mental health panels.

When the mental state of the accused is an issue, experts are hired by both prosecution and defense. As most capital murder cases involve indigents, taxpayers pay for both sides of the fight. Smaller counties often have no resident experts.

Regional, neutral panels nominated by their peers could review the defendant’s interview and other evidence, yet only one would testify. While not totally dispositive of other experts, their objective views would carry great credibility.

▪ Set national standards for scientific testing.

I once defended a murder case in Corpus Christi in which the main issue was the defendant’s location. The state’s expert used cellphone “pings” and tower locations to demonstrate that the defendant was in the wrong spot at the right time.

We had an attorney who rattled off scientific terms and numbers that no one understood, resulting in a costly, hung jury and re-trial.

Other “science” such as hair microscopy, bite mark analysis and shoe print comparisons have all resulted in errors. Faulty analysis is behind 47 percent of wrongful convictions, according to the Innocence Project.

▪ Have a fair division of costs.

To “get away with (capital) murder” in Texas, or at least not be executed, commit your crime in an average or small county.

A Texas Tribune study found more than half (135) of Texas counties have never executed anyone, and 60 percent of the death sentences in the past five years have originated from 2 percent of our counties.

The state, not the county, needs to pick up the tab.

Without more safeguards, innocent people will inevitably be executed.

We can’t placate those with extreme positions, but we can cut costs, improve our justice system and enhance our reputation as a state.

Steve Fischer of Rockport has been Willacy County district attorney, a criminal lawyer and a professor of criminology.