The Texas Tribune posts ,"Panel Debates Death Penalty Cases, Race Considerations," by Maurice Chammah.
Death row inmates who believe their condemnation in court was tainted by race considerations would be able to appeal their sentences under a bill a panel of legislators in the House considered Tuesday.
House Bill 2458, by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, would prohibit death sentences based on race-related evidence. It would allow defendants to appeal based on claims that “race was a significant factor in the decision to seek or impose the [death] sentence,” and they could use statistics or specific trial testimony to bolster their arguments. Rebecca Bernhardt, policy director of the Texas Defender Service, which represents death row inmates, said allowing the use of statistics to prove racial bias is crucial because prosecutors and jurors will seldom admit whether race played a role in their decisions.
Under the bill, prosecutors would be able to argue that race played no part in a conviction, and a judge would decide whether to maintain the death sentence. The bill would require a the defendant who files such an appeal to waive their right to object to a sentence of life without parole.
Similar versions of the bill, which do not include such a waiver, have been filed by state Rep. Eric Johnson (HB 2614) and state Sen. Royce West (SB 1270), both Dallas Democrats. The proposals have already had an effect on death penalty cases even before they were considered by the Legislature.
Death row inmate Kimberly McCarthy — who is black and was convicted of murdering her 71-year-old white neighbor — was scheduled to be executed on April 3, but Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins asked a judge to temporarily delay the execution in case the Legislature approves a bill that could affect race-based appeals in death penalty cases.
At the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee hearing Tuesday, Thompson referred to the Duane Buck case as a prime example of how black defendants are more likely to receive the death penalty.
“We know that blacks and Hispanics and are overrepresented on death row relative to their overall population,” she said.
"Bill Could Allow Death Row to Appeal Sentences Based on Race," is the AP report by Michael Brick, via KXAS-TV.
Rallying around the case of a black man sentenced to death on racially charged testimony, opponents of capital punishment asked state lawmakers on Tuesday to create a new avenue of appeal for death row inmates in Texas.
But despite national attention to the case, including support from a surviving victim, a lawyer who worked for the prosecution and a former governor, several members of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee called the proposal unnecessary.
Under House Bill 2458, convicted murderers could challenge their sentences by proving that race played a significant role in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty. While statistical evidence of a district attorney's record on seeking the death penalty could be offered, other evidence particular to the case would be required. To qualify for a hearing, defendants would have to accept an alternate sentence of life without parole. Kentucky and North Carolina have enacted similar laws.
Of the 304 inmates on death row in Texas last year, according to the most recent count by the Death Penalty Information Center, 122 were black, 89 were white and 89 were Latino.
At the hearing Tuesday, Rep. Steve Toth, a Republican from the Woodlands, expressed a lack of familiarity with the case. He called the use of race as a factor "shocking."
Yannis Banks, a spokesman for the state chapter of the NAACP, offered statistics dating from the 19th century to the present day.
"Race continues to play an undeniable role in Texas' use of the death penalty," he testified.
Additional information on House Bill 2458 is at the Texas Legislature Online website.
Related posts are in the race category index.