Wednesday, April 18, 2007

What is Harris County hiding?

Yes, we have been talking Texas a lot lately on this blog. Not so much because it's my home state and I love it. More so because Texas accounts for a death row of more than 400 people, and it also accounts for more than one-third of the nation's 1,070 executions since 1976.

Texas has executed mentally retarded people, severely mentally ill people and juvenile offenders. And Texas has executed innocent people (we'll be rolling out a web site on this topic soon. For now, I'll just reference NCADP's groundbreaking report, Innocent and Executed: Four Chapters in the Life of America's Death Penalty.

Today we are going to talk about Texas again. Because Texas has a little problem. They keep sending innocent people to prison. It's like a drug addiction. They can't stop. Again and again and again we read of exonerations out of Texas. I'm not talking about death row inmates (already they've their share of innocent people on death row -- both executed (Cameron Todd Willingham, Ruben Cantu, Carlos De Luna) and thankfully not executed (Randall Dale Adams, Clarence Brandley, Earnest Ray Willis....shall I go on? I could, you know.)

Recently, Dallas County elected a new district attorney. He believes in the death penalty. But he's a reformer. He doesn't believe in locking innocent people up, and he knows Texas has a problem. He knows Dallas County has a problem. Indeed: statistics reveal that 12 (about to be 13) men out of Dallas County have been sent to prison and then cleared by DNA evidence. That's more than any other county in the U.S.!

And Harris County? They send more people to prison than Dallas County (and more people to death row than any other county in the U.S.) Yet they have only had four DNA exonerations.

The difference? Sit down. Take a deep breath.

Dallas County preserves its evidence after conviction. Harris County destroys it. In Dallas County, thanks to this new reformist district attorney, evidence can be tested. Not so in Harris County.

There's this outstanding op-ed in the Houston Chronicle that addresses this shameful dichotomy. The op-ed is by Lisa Falkenberg. You can read the whole thing here, but I'm excerpting some snippets:

At least Dallas County gives 2nd chances

Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle

One look at James Curtis Giles on our front page with his cobalt blue suit, smiling, relieved eyes, his sister gripping his shoulder like a battle buddy returning from the field has me both thrilled and furious.

Thrilled because for the first time in a quarter-century, the world knows 53-year-old Giles is an innocent man, no longer the scum-of-the-earth sex offender convicted in the brutal gang rape of a pregnant 18-year-old.

Furious because he likely will be the 13th man proven by DNA testing to have been wrongly convicted in Dallas County. Thirteen. That's more DNA exonerations than any county in the nation. Harris County has had only four.

What's wrong with the justice system in Dallas? Is it really that much worse than ours?
Harris County had tainted evidence and sloppy record-keeping from a leaky police crime lab. Both counties have shared reputations for what critics call a "conviction-at all-costs" mentality.

And Harris, the so-called death penalty capital of the world, is a lot more populous.

So, assuming Harris has its fair share of bad lawyers, overzealous cops and mistaken eyewitnesses, why aren't we seeing the same parade of exonerations?

The main answer is simple: Dallas is a pack rat, keeping evidence dating back to the 1980s in catalogued freezers of a county-run lab; Harris County is not.

It's not that Dallas' policy was born of benevolent foresight: It likely was intended to aid prosecutors in fighting appeals.

But enter Craig Watkins, the new Democratic district attorney hell-bent on airing his Republican predecessors' sins and busting out the innocent, and you've got a recipe for long-awaited justice.

'Heads in the sand'

Harris County is a different story.

As we saw in the HPD crime lab debacle, precious evidence like bloody clothing and rape kits got rained on, used up in one test or misplaced. Even the evidence sent to other labs was routinely stored in crowded, dusty warehouses, where exhibits were periodically tossed to make room for more.

In 1997, the rape kit that exonerated Kevin Byrd narrowly escaped the trash bin. But a week after his pardon, court officials ordered 50 more rape kits destroyed.

Harris County's tossing tendencies are common and legal. Texas law requires evidence to be kept only until a convict is executed, dies or is paroled. Curtis Giles might still be a registered sex offender today if Dallas had followed that minimum standard; he was exonerated 14 years after his parole.

Evidence isn't the only obstacle to freeing Harris County's innocent. Critics point to a culture of denial at the office of District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, who's often painted as the archetypal red meat Texas prosecutor.

"I think it's a matter of them burying their heads in the sand so they're not confronted with the possibility they made a mistake," David Dow, director of the University of Houston's Innocence Network, said of Rosenthal's office."They often don't even answer our letters anymore when we inquire about ...evidence."


Rosenthal should follow Watkins' example in Dallas: Throw open his doors to the innocence attorneys and allow them to test whatever evidence exists in disputed cases. He has nothing to lose, except his pride, but much to gain.For every innocent person in prison, there is a murderer or rapist who escaped justice.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I guess its also worth noting that Iraq's use of the death penalty has risen rapidly since it was reinstated in mid 2004 and it now ranks as the country with the fourth highest rate of executions in the world, Amnesty International said on Friday. The London based human rights group said in a report that Iraq had sentenced more than 270 people to death since sovereignty was handed back to the Iraqis by the Americans in mid 2004. Of those, at least 100 have so far been executed.

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