Houston Chronicle has an editorial today welcoming Harris County’s DA decision to stop executions while Supreme Court is reviewing constitutionality of Lethal Injection.
In the nation’s capital of capital punishment, death will take a holiday.
In an overdue decision, Harris County Assistant District Attorney Roe Wilson confirmed that her office will suspend requests for execution dates for death penalty convicts until the U.S. Supreme Court hears a Kentucky case challenging the constitutionality of lethal injection. Wilson asked a judge to suspend a February date for the execution of convicted murderer and rapist Derrick Sonnier.
At present 122 prisoners from Harris County are on death row. Texas executes more prisoners than any other state, and since lethal injection began here in 1982, about a quarter of those executed came from Harris County.
In late September the Supreme Court announced it would review the legality of lethal injection, the predominant method of execution in the United States. Later that same day, Sharon Keller, presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, refused to accept a last-minute plea for a stay from former Harris County resident and murderer Michael Richard. He was executed hours later.
Since then, Supreme Court justices have granted stays to halt executions around the country, the last coming Wednesday in the case of a Mississippi prisoner, Earl Berry, convicted of murdering a woman two decades ago. The high court has sent a clear signal that it will stop all planned lethal injections until it rules on the issue next year.
Now that the Lone Star State’s punishment machine is temporarily halted, citizens should consider questions that go beyond whether lethal injection is excruciatingly painful to its recipients and violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment:
Why is the death penalty imposed so much more frequently in this state — and Harris County in particular — than in the rest of the country? Are Texans really proud that our state is one of the leading practitioners of government-sponsored executions on the planet?
Worldwide, 133 countries have abolished the death penalty in practice, and 93 have proscribed it by law. Amnesty International notes that only six countries accounted for nearly 90 percent of the executions last year: China, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan and the United States. Is this the company we wish to keep when it comes to judicial standards?
Given the high volume of death sentences sought by Harris County prosecutors, instances of tainted evidence and the demonstrated lack of highly competent attorneys representing some defendants, is the risk of executing an innocent person unacceptably high? Chronicle reporting on the execution of a San Antonio man who was convicted of a killing as a teen strongly indicates another man committed the crime.
In next year’s Harris County judicial and district attorney contests, these are issues the candidates should discuss in detail and which voters should thoroughly consider.