Monday, February 13, 2006

All we're sayin' is, this guy's a reformer

We're not, of course, going to comment on the accident over the weekend involving Vice President Cheney and the quail hunt. This is a strictly nonpartisan blog -- there are Republicans who oppose the death penalty and Democrats who favor it and we want to build a big tent that includes everyone who opposes it -- libertarians, religious conservatives, religious progressives, secular folks, everyone.

That said, my friend in Austin, Steve Hall, reports that Harry Whittington, the guy Cheney accidentally shot, has been a longtime proponent of reform of Texas' criminal justice system.

For example, he once testified against executing people who have severe mental retardation. Excerpts from his testimony follow:

"I am appearing here today as someone who has had years of experience in dealing with mental retardation and Texas government. First, as a parent of a 45-year-old mentally retarded daughter; second, as a solo-practitioner lawyer who has gone to court for disadvantaged and uninformed clients; and third as a veteran of almost a quarter of a century of service to our state as a member of the Prison Board, Public Finance Authority and Funeral Commission.

"For the past 24 years, I have been an advocate for the proposition that Texas has been woefully deficient and backward in the way it fails to recognize and properly treat its mentally retarded citizens, especially in its criminal justice system.

"During this time, I have been sadly disappointed over the number of state leaders and judges who confuse the irreversible condition of mental retardation with the disease of mental illness.
This began when I started visiting prisons and seeing first-hand how callused and unfair our prisons were by expecting mentally retarded inmates to have the same comprehension and ability as the typical street-wise and smarter offenders. It became obvious to me that our state's criminal justice system had simply not been designed to provide them with equal treatment under the law.


"Two years ago, the Texas Legislature continued with forward progress by joining 16 of the 38 states who have death penalties in setting public policy against the execution of inmates who have childlike minds; unfortunately, the legislation was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry. This policy was confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002, making it the law of the land.


"Those of us who are on the same side of this issue before you today are the same ones who argued in past sessions that the state should set a higher moral standard for justice because the execution of adults with the minds of children was cruel punishment beneath the dignity of the State of Texas. Those on the other side are the same ones who have appeared every year and opposed any reform legislation which could possibly be interpreted as being soft on crime.

"Our side has never argued that the mentally retarded should not be punished. We have only said that they should not be executed because they are incapable of understanding the seriousness of their crimes. We continue to believe that since the death penalty is the ultimate punishment imposed on those criminals who are the most accountable for their actions, all possible doubts about due process should be removed from the trial procedure as offenders with metal deficiencies make their way through the criminal justice system.

"My experience and my knowledge of the law and constitution convinces me that it would be grossly unfair to an offender with the mind of a child to have his retardation determined by the same jury that has heard and seen how violently and brutally his adult body has wrongfully acted. In your deliberations, please keep in mind that the mentally retarded have the same physical desires, weaknesses and temptations as the rest of us.

"If our state truly opposes the execution of mentally retarded offenders, we should remove all doubts about protecting them from a jury that has become biased because of the evidence they have heard in a courtroom. This is the humane and compassionate position that a large majority of Texans support."

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