Why the Death Penalty Soon Will Be Abolished*
(*But not forever)
If you want to understand why more and more judges are becoming concerned, even alarmed, with the many procedural and substantive flaws in the system of capital punishment in America, take a look at what is going on down in Texas, where the courts, the lawyers, and the politicians all have conspired to neglect or undermine the constitutional guarantee that no man may be executed by the state without proper due process of law. As Chuck Lindell reported Sunday in the Austin American-Statesman, 273 men and women have been executed in Texas over the past 11 years during a time when too many court-appointed defense attorneys have failed to meet even minimal standards of legal representation. You may say: "So what. Those murderers got what they deserved." But bad legal work, and a legal system that countenances it, diminishes us all and ultimately is self-destructive.
Lindell's piece is long but worth the read. And no doubt some of the folks who will be reading it are members of the United States Supreme Court, which this term has already agreed to hear three death penalty cases arising out of Texas. There is a history there, between the Supreme Court on the one hand, and the appeals courts in Texas and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on the other hand. Several times, in recent years, the High Court has ordered those lower courts to revise, rework, revamp death penalty procedures. And several times those lower courts have failed or refused to do so in ways that some legal observers believe borders on willful disobediance. Reading Lindell's piece makes you understand a little more why this is so.
In Texas, as Lindell reports, an "indifferent Texas Court of Criminal Appeals" has allowed "lawyers to submit sloppy, lazy and inferior work" on behalf of their capital clients "with little oversight and no fear of consequences." One attorney, reports the paper, was allowed to file "a nearly incoherent collection of statements lifted almost verbatim from his death row client's letters..." Another attorney during a second-round of appeals simply copied the failed arguments that had been used (and rejected before) during the first round even though such arguments are not permitted during Round Two. This is the same state, remember, whose courts upheld a capital sentence even though the defendant's lawyer had slept through portions of the murder trial.
Either states like Texas will spend the time and money necessary to fix their problems or, ultimately, the Supreme Court will fix the problems for them. A generation ago, the Court simply declared unconstitutional the death penalty in America until states were willing and able to generate consistent standards for determining when a capital sentence was justifiied or not. It's not about to happen in the next few days, or months, or perhaps even years. But at the rate things are going, and with the mess in Texas being just a prominent tip of an iceberg that floats through states like Oklahoma and Florida as well, it is virtually a certainty that one day soon the Supreme Court will shut down the whole process again until things get fixed. And if and when that happens, death penalty proponents in Texas and elsewhere, the ones who allow men and women to be executed without getting decent legal help, will have no one to blame but themselves.
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Posted by: dg | October 30, 2006 01:07 PM
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