A March 1998 Amnesty International report titled The Death Penalty in Texas: Lethal Injustice notes that “public support for the death penalty in Texas remains strong,” and a later news release states “Texas is so proud of killing people that it issues press releases for the executions it carries out.” A killing irony, if ever there was one in the so-called “compassionate conservative” state.
I wouldn’t be thinking about this issue, except I found a picture of Gerald Dewight Casey (no known relation) on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website. Casey was convicted of murder and robbery and executed April 18, 2002 (one of many executed that year). Though I don’t doubt the merits of this particular case, the number of other cases that are contested and seriously doubted grows.
A Christian Science Monitor story notes how bungles in Texas crime lab that have cast doubt on hundreds of cases. But, Scott Henson af the ACLU of Texas in his crime lab testimony in Houston makes clear that the labs are only part of a larger problem:
…Crime lab lapses are a microcosm within a system geared toward maximizing the ease with which convictions can be obtained. Innocent people aren’t convicted because one lab technician makes an error. Innocents are convicted when the actors in the system don’t care that innocents are convicted. This committee should examine all the reasons innocent people are convicted, including but not just limited to the role of forensics.
The Amnesty International story, and many other sites linked above explain why the Texas criminal justice system is so scary for those who stand accused in it, but this story from bookofjoe from last week cautions us more. It’s Jennifer Thompson’s Sunday, June 18, 2000 New York Times Op-Ed piece titled ‘I Was Certain, but I Was Wrong.’
She was a victim and eye-witness to a scary and heinous crime. She identified her attacker in a line-up and and he served 11 years in prison before DNA evidence cleared the man she’d identified and implicated another.
The man I was so sure I had never seen in my life was the man who was inches from my throat, who raped me, who hurt me, who took my spirit away, who robbed me of my soul. And the man I had identified so emphatically on so many occasions was absolutely innocent.
Jennifer Thompson isn’t sure how she misidentified her attacker, and her essay expresses her deep regret for her part in the unnecessary imprisonment of another, but the lesson she wants us all to learn from this is the incredible fallibility of “eye-witness” accounts and testimony. Thompson notes the case of Gary Graham, sentenced to death on an a single eye-witness account, with no physical evidence and against conflicting accounts.
Writing four years ago, she remarks:
there is a man in Texas named Gary Graham who is about to be executed because one witness is confident that Mr. Graham is the killer she saw from 30 to 40 feet away. This woman saw the murderer for only a fraction of the time that I saw the man who raped me. Several other witnesses contradict her, but the jury that convicted Mr. Graham never heard any of the conflicting testimony.
I know that there is an eyewitness who is absolutely positive she saw Gary Graham commit murder. But she cannot possibly be any more positive than I was about Ronald Cotton. What if she is dead wrong?
(Note: Graham was executed on June 22, 2000).
Because this is unfortunately about Texas, I have to note that the US Supreme Court is hearing a case “on whether state and federal courts must enforce U.S. treaty obligations that mandate foreign nationals be given access to diplomats from their home country when they are detained in U.S. prisons.” The NPR Morning Edition story by Nina Totenberg was quite interesting.
How does this relate to Texas? It’s a Mexican national on Death Row in Texas who has brought this to bear. The man was represented by a disbarred public defender, convicted of murder and sentanced to death long before Texas officials notified the Mexican consulate as require by treaty.
The rest of the story is best understood in the context of Robert Bryce’s book, Cronies, where he notes that “Texans are running the country — maybe the world.” The risk today is that Texas state criminal justice officials are changing US foreign policy by refusing to observe international law on this matter.
And while I have the highest ideals and interests at heart, I’m also concerned about what might happen to US citizens — like, possibly, me! — charged with crimes abroad in a world where there is no “rule of law.”