Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Sadly prescient

This is a story that hits home, so bear with me.

Back in my former career, I was a newspaper reporter. All in all I did this for ten years, but the greatest and most memorable stint of this time was when I covered politics and state government for the Austin American-Statesman. I wrote a bunch of stories during my time with the American-Statesman, probably about 1,400 or so during a five-year stint there. As one might imagine, I have long forgotten 90 percent of the stories I wrote.

And yet, at odd times, stories occasionally will come back to me. I'll hear of a story similar to one that I covered. Or maybe a politician I covered will be back in the news.

Or maybe something intense -- sometimes intensely wrong -- will remind me of something I wrote.

That's what happened to me recently. It took me a full week after the Houston Chronicle's two-part series on Ruben Cantu to put all the pieces together.

Regulars at this blog know I have been thinking about that Ruben Cantu series a LOT lately – and blogging on it. For those of you who might be just visiting here for the first time, the Houston Chronicle reported, in unusually strong terms, that Cantu may well have been innocent of the crime for which he was executed.

Cantu was executed on Aug. 24, 1993.

Which brings me to my personal deja vu, my personal, sad and unhappy moment of prescience:

On May 8, 1993, I wrote the following (it’s too long for a blog entry so I’m excerpting it):

Report: Death row in Texas in ‘crisis:’Inmate representation called worst in U.S.
By David Elliot
American-Statesman Capitol

Could the State of Texas execute an innocent person?
Yes – and soon – say an increasing number of critics of the state’s judicial system.

As many of the state’s 371 death row inmates exhaust their appeals, what has been a trickle of executions is about to become a torrent.

At the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court has placed an unprecedented burden on Texas and other states to thoroughly examine a condemned prisoner’s new claims of innocence through executive clemency proceedings. But in Texas, clemency is largely uncharted territory because it has been used so rarely.

“We believe, in the strongest possible terms, that Texas has already reached the crisis stage in capital representation and that the problem is substantially worse than that faced by any other state with the death penalty, “ said the report by the Spangenberg Group of Massachusetts, a consulting firm that has conducted similar studies in other death-penalty states. “The situation in Texas can only be described as desperate. The volume of cases is overwhelming.”

The issue, said Bill Whitehurst, former president of the State Bar of Texas, is not whether the death penalty should be the law of the land, but how certain the state should be that a condemned inmate is guilty before it executes him.

"We are a system of laws and procedures," Whitehurst said. "Whether any of our citizens feel capital punishment is appropriate or not, I think we all agree that we need to have a system that is fair and just and that allows for a thorough and proper decision on any case -- especially where life is at stake."


Attorneys...warned that Texas could soon execute an innocent man.

"It could happen next week," said Jordan Steiker, an assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Law. "This is not an idle concern about the possibility of executing people. There are people who have substantial claims of innocence that have never been addressed...And if these [earlier part of article snipped because of space] (proposed) procedures are not adopted, we could likely have innocent men executed in Texas, before the end of this year."

[Blogger's note: Ruben Cantu was executed on August 24, 1993, 98 days after this article was published. Hat tip to Jordan Steiker.]

[Now continuing with the article]

The Spangenberg study, commissioned by the State Bar of Texas, all but compares the state's capital defense system to that of a Third World Nation.

[Blogger's note: Of course, the overwhelming majority of Third World Nations in the Western Hemisphere do not have the death penalty]

[Anyway, to continue]

The study found that many Texas death row inmates are unaware of their rapidly approaching execution dates because their court-appointed lawyers stopped working on their cases without notifying them.

"It is difficult to articulate just how serious the problem of representation seems to be," the study said. "Our view, just having completed this study and numerous others throughout the country, is that no other state even comes close to the level of urgency of the problems in Texas."


Steve Martin, a criminal justice expert and former lawyer for the Texas Department of Corrections, agrees that without reform, Texas is headed for the ultimate tragedy: the execution of an innocent person. And, he adds, it could happen legally. "The legal terrain has changed," he said. "That change, if we don't react to it, can result in the state executing, under the cover of law, without offending any current principle, an innocent person."
That article was published in May of 1993. Ruben Cantu died on Aug. 24. 1993.


Anonymous said...

Hat tip to David Elliot, too. It was the Austin American-Statesman great loss when he moved on.
Jan H.

Anonymous said...

Hat tip to David Elliot, too. It was the Austin American-Statesman's great loss when he moved on.
Jan H.