Earlier this month, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay for the execution of Julius Murphy. The Court cited concerns about the possibility of prosecutors coercing statements from witnesses that implicated Murphy in a 1997 murder.
This case – which also includes issues related to intellectual disability and racial bias – raises questions about the fair use of capital punishment in Texas.
To be sure, the state has come a long way since the United States Supreme Court temporarily declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972, citing concerns that was inequitably applied. Since the Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, we have made great strides in ensuring fairness and legal protection for capital defendants. I am proud to have played my own part in reducing death sentences in Texas by giving juries the option of a sentence of life without parole in 2005. But we still have a long way to go toward providing truly equal justice to all Texans.
Last Friday, October 23, we took another step on that critical journey. The Texas Catholic Conference and I co- hosted Journey to Mercy, a policy roundtable that focused on re-evaluating the death penalty in Texas. Elected officials, representatives of the criminal justice system, advocates, and other stakeholders met to discuss policy solutions that will offer greater equity to those accused or convicted of crimes in Texas.
We heard from Deacon Richard Lopez, a former death chamber chaplain who witnessed over 100 executions. He shared stories of redemption and hope from death row inmates who repented and became positive forces in prison, even as they awaited death.
Former Texas Governor Mark White spoke about his personal journey from supporting the death penalty to having serious reservations over its application in Texas. He cited concerns over fair representation, the fallibility of scientific evidence-gathering practices, and the inequitable use of capital punishment as factors leading to his change of heart.
But the most compelling testimony came from Marietta Jeager-Lane, whose daughter, Susie, was kidnapped and murdered while on a camping trip. Marietta spoke about coming to forgive the murderer and asking the prosecutor not to seek the death penalty.
She shared with us her personal reasons for opposing capital punishment: “In the end, all it does is make another victim and another grieving family and it didn’t restore Susie back to my arms,” she said. “In honor of Susie, I wanted to aspire to a higher moral principle that says that ‘all life is sacred.’”
I was extremely moved by Marietta’s emotional address to the conference, which reinforced my own views on the immorality of the death penalty. At the same time, I was also encouraged by several speakers from various backgrounds who brought concrete solutions that will ensure that, if we do continue to execute convicts in Texas, we are giving them the fairest possible trial before doing so.
For example, we must ensure that state law requires adequate and accurate instructions to juries about the consequences of their decisions about life or death.
We must endeavor to use the latest technology and invite the testimony of expert witnesses to ensure that the evidence presented in capital cases paints an accurate picture of the incident under investigation.
We must guarantee that adequate resources are allocated for indigent defense in death penalty cases – including not just defense attorneys but also expert witnesses and evidence gathering – so that, as one speaker put it, capital punishment is not just for those who do not have any capital.
We must especially safeguard the right to an attorney for mentally incompetent defendants, many of whom have inexplicably been allowed to represent themselves before the court.
Finally, we as a state must shoulder the responsibility of ensuring a proper and adequate defense by allocating state money to offset these expenses to local units of government.
The journey toward fairness in our criminal justice system is a long one, but we must never stop striving to achieve justice. On Friday, we made a major step forward on this journey by inviting a wide range of stakeholders to share their stories and ideas. I encourage stakeholders to continue to reach out to me and other legislators during the interim with their concerns, ideas, and policy proposals that will help us along this journey. And I look forward to the next legislative session, when I hope the entire Legislature will join me in taking large strides toward fairness and justice in Texas.