StandDown Texas Project

The StandDown Texas Project identifies and advocates best practices in the criminal justice system. To stand down is to go off duty temporarily, especially to review safety procedures. That is what Texas needs to do with its death penalty.

Friday, August 27, 2004

The Houston Crime Lab Mess

For the last year and a half, the Houston Police Department's crime lab has been in the midst of a total implosion. Serious problems were discovered in how DNA was stored and analyzed. Other areas of the lab are now being scrutinized.

Already one person, Josiah Sutton, has been exonerated, released, and pardoned after spending four years in the Texas prisons for a crime he did not commit. Throughout this time the Harris County District Attorney's office has blocked calls for an independent investigation. That may be about to change.

Lost evidence involving thousands of cases has now been discovered in mislabeled storage boxes, and this discovery may be the straw that broke the camel's back. Today's New York Times and Houston Chronicle both had stories. You can view them at:
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/27/national/27lab.html
http://www.chron.com/CDA/umstory.mpl/metropolitan/2762448

The Houston Chronicle deserves commendations for aggressively reporting this story. You can view the archive of news articles, columns and editorials at: http://www.chron.com/content/chronicle/special/03/crimelab/index.html

Perhaps the most important point to remember is that this scandal is not unique. Other crime labs across the nation have had similar problems, and at least one of the Texas Department of Public Safety's regional crime labs has also been under investigation.




Thursday, August 26, 2004

The Question of Future Dangerousness

A central factor during the sentencing phase of a capital murder trial in Texas deals with the question of future dangerousness --- the jury must determine that the person will represent a future danger to society. It's important to note that the society under consideration is the prison society of other inmates, guards and prison employees.

Texas is one of only two states that places such an emphasis on predictions of future danger. Recently, Texas Defender Service published a report, "Deadly Speculation: Misleading Texas Capital Juries with False Predictions of Future Dangersousness." Of the 155 cases examined, the report showed that expert predictions about an individual's future dangerousness were incorrect 95% of the time. That's one the reason the American Psychiatric Association has condemned the practice of expert testimony on the issue since 1983. To view the report, visit TDS' website: http://www.texasdefender.org/DEADLYSP.PDF

An editorial in today's Austin American-Statesman recognizes that clemency decisions should be based on the facts, rather than highly inaccurate predictions. The Statesman editorial board faults the Texas clemency process for failing to take into account the way James Allridge has lived and worked on death row for 17 years.
http://www.statesman.com/opinion/content/editorial/08/26execute_edit.html

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Forty Years after Gideon

Forty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark ruling declared that indigent defendants in criminal cases must have access to legal counsel. The case was vividly reported in Anthony Lewis' classic, Gideon's Trumpet, still in print today. Since then Texas counties have relied on a non-system in which virtually every individual criminal court judge had his or her own rules and procedures. In 2001, the Texas Legislature voted the Texas Fair Defense Act into law, and created a Task Force on Indigent Defense to implement the new law. The TxFDA called for standards in attorney appointment, qualifications and compensation.

The new law has been widely praised for improving a system that had been near the bottom of all 50 states by any standard of measure. Until the TxFDA, all indigent defense costs had been paid by the individual counties. With passage of the new law the state of Texas started laying out money, offering grants to the counties to help pay for additional costs of complying with the law.

The Dallas Morning News on Friday reported on an examination of Dallas County's efforts, relating that while progress has been made, the Dallas County Public Defender's Office remains understaffed and lacks adequate training systems. For more on this go to: http://www.dallasnews.com/s/dws/news/localnews/stories/082104dnmetindigent.9e051.html

It's estimated that in most county's between 80 - 90% of all criminal cases require court appointed attorneys.

You can find more information on indigent defense in Texas at two sites.

The Task Force on Indigent Defense: http://www.courts.state.tx.us/tfid/TFIDentrance.htm

The Equal Justice Center: http://www.equaljusticecenter.org/serv01.htm

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

New Voices Call for Clemency for James Allridge

James Allridge is scheduled to be executed by the state of Texas on August 26. Former prison guards and officials as well as jury members of Allridge's capital murder trial are calling on the Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend that his death sentence be commuted to life in prison.

Allridge has always taken responsibility for the senseless crime that took a young man's life. Inside the prison, he has tried to be a positive force to TDCJ employees and guards and counseled other inmates on how to live a positive life in prison.

This type of rehabilitation has historically been a reason for commuting death sentence. One of the essential elements a jury must find for a death sentence to be handed out in Texas is that the individual will represent a continuing threat -- a future danger -- to society. During his years in prison, James Allridge has proven that he is not a danger in prison.

The Board of Pardons and Paroles will make its recommendation later this month. Governor Rick Perry can only commute a sentence upon a positive recommendation by the Board, but he is not required to do so.