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.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Harris County Sets Busy Execution Schedule

Harris County judges have set eight execution dates for the period October 5 through December 1. Three other execution dates have also been set from other counties through the end of this year.

The HPD crime lab scandal, however, may be a stumbling block for Harris County. The scandal has raged for more than a year and a half, and new developments continue to explode. Recently, evidence from thousands of cases was discovered in storage boxes. According to press reports, the boxes are univentoried, and no one knows exactly what is in the boxes.

The Houston Chronicle is continuing its extraordinary coverage with an article today:

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Ruling Expected in Scott Panetti Case

Earlier this month, Federal District Judge Sam Sparks held a two-day hearing on the question of whether or not Scott Panetti is competent to be executed. His case drew national press attention in the spring when his execution was stayed. Leaders of the mental health community in Texas had called for an evaluation of Panetti.

Panetti had been diagnosed with severe mental illness and hospitalized numerous times over a ten year period prior to murdering his former parents-in-law. In what was described at the time by one observer as "a judicial farce," Panetti was allowed to represent himself at the trial. Observers described bizarre behavior by Panetti who wore a Tom Mix style cowboy costume. He was quickly convicted and sentenced to death.

According to witnesses at the two-day hearing, Panetti's mental illness has continued to degenerate over the years, and he does not understand why is to be executed. In order to be deemed competent to be executed a person must be able to understand that they are to be executed, that the execution is imminent, and the reason they are being executed.

Many people mistakenly believe that states are barred from executing the mentally ill. Such a ban applies to those with mental retardation, a lifelong condition that affects intellectual capacity, not mental illness. Identifiable mental illnesses can vary widely in severity and duration.

Earlier this year, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, by a 5-1 vote, recommended a commutation of sentence for Kelsey Patterson, who also suffered from severe mental illness. Like Panetti, Patterson's illness had been diagnosed for years prior to the crime he committed for which he was sentenced to death. Governor Rick Perry rejected the Board's recommendation and Patterson was executed.

Watch for a ruling soon in Scott Panetti's case.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Innocence and the death penalty

The Death Penalty Information Center has issued an important new report, 'Innocence and the Crisis in the American Death Penalty.' To date, 116 men and women who were sentenced to death have been exonerated and released. This fact has shifted the way people think about the death penalty, and the crisis in indigent representation in many states.

To view the report, go to:

This report comes out at the same time as a new book about Kirk Bloodsworth, the first person who had been on death row to be exonerated through DNA testing. Author Tim Junkin has captured the drama in Bloodsworth's ordeal. Bloodsworth is published by Algonguin Books of Chapel Hill. The author and Kirk Bloodsworth are on an extensive book tour and will be in Texas in mid-November. To see if they will be in your area visit Algonquin at:

Seven men have been exonerated and freed from Texas death row since re-introduction of the death penalty. At this time at least two cases are receiving judicial review over the issue of actual innocence.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

California creates criminal justice study commission

In late August, the California Senate authorized the creation of the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice. Commission members will be appointed by the Senate Rules Committee. The Commission will be charged with examining the state's criminal justice system to determine how it has failed in the past to prevent wrongful convictions. The Commission will recommend improvements and safeguards designed to prevent innocent men and women from ending up as victims of the criminal justice system, and enhance the reliability of convictions and sentences.

In the wake of a moratorium on executions in Illinois, Governor George Ryan appointed a commission in that state that recommended 85 fixes, ranging from police investigative procedures through the clemency process to strenghten Illinois' criminal justice system.

One of the more significant recommendations of the Illinois panel is being adopted by law enforcement agencies across the nation; videotaping interrogations of persons in custody. Police and sheriffs are finding it an effective tool for convicting the guilty.