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The End is Near…for Texas Death Penalty

On April 29, 2013, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee held a public hearing on House Bill (HB) 1703 , which calls for the repeal of the death penalty in Texas. State Representative Jessica Farrar (District 148 – Houston), the author of HB 1703, along with State Representatives Alma Allen (District 131 – Houston) and Lon Burnam (District 90 – Fort Worth) are optimistic in their now fourth attempt in pushing an anti-death penalty bill through the Texas Capitol. In an interview with TCADP (Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, a grassroots organization), Rep. Farrar said:

“National momentum clearly has shifted in the direction of abolition. This spring, Maryland became the sixth state in six years to abandon the death penalty and legislators in Delaware are poised to do likewise. Elected officials in at least 16 other states are considering repeal legislation this year. This hearing provides members of the Texas House of Representatives with the opportunity to hear diverse perspectives on the death penalty and engage in open dialogue about the flaws and failures of our state’s capital punishment system.”

First introduced back in 2007, House Bill (HB) 1703 strikes death penalty as a sentencing option from all relevant sections of the Texas Penal Code and Code of Criminal Procedure, replacing it with a life in prison without possibility of parole. According to the TCADP, late on the night of April 29th, “the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee considered testimony on House Bill 1703” from not only the authors of the bill, but also the testimonies of residents of Texas who have been effected by the death penalty in some way. These testimonies include: Anthony Graves, who had spent 12 years on death row for a crime he would later be exonerated of, and also from murder victim family members, religious leaders, and from family members of those who have been executed, such as Keith Brooks, whose father was Charlie Brooks, the first person executed in Texas by lethal injection back in 1982. Obviously, the discussion between legislators and the above testimonies were rather emotional, all in the hopes of bringing about, as Rep. Farris herself said, “serious discussion and re-evaluation of capital punishment in Texas. See HB 819 for her complete position statement.

The bill is currently pending in committee.

Texas is scheduled to carry out three executions in May: Carroll Parr, Jeffery Williams, and Robert Pruett.

Jessica Farrar, along with a few other Houston Democrats, are pushing to appeal the death penalty in Texas for good. But will they succeed? It would seem rather unlikely, considering that the state of Texas has a notorious reputation for having the majority of the countries death penalty sentences. According to author Brent Newton, in his article Capital Punishment: Texas Could Learn a Lot from Florida, a part of why death penalties are so high in Texas, is because, “Texas’ appellate judges are elected to office and hence serve according to the pleasure of the public. Not surprisingly, they require a record of toughness on criminals in order to win re-election.” Another contributor, according to Newton, is that Texas doesn’t have a good public defender system. In the end, incompetent court-appointed lawyers take on capital murder cases that they are likely to have zero experience. And when the condemned attempt to appeal, proving shotty lawyering is harder to prove than their original case of innocence. According to the Office of District Attorney for Harris County, Texas, Mike Anderson, “the affirmance rate, that is the rate of convictions being upheld, over the last five years has been in excess of 95%. Stated somewhat differently that means less than 5% of the defendants appealing their convictions are successful.”

Brett Ligon, the district attorney for Montgomery County, according to an interview conducted by KUHF (Houston public radio) reporter Carrie Feibel, says that he supports the death penalty, but does not a champion it, stating that:

“In the sense that if it’s on the books and it continues to be within the framework of sentencing guidelines, then it will be used in its appropriate form. If it is no longer on the books you won’t hear me or many other prosecutors jumping up and down, defending the integrity and honor and the pedigree of the death penalty in Texas. When you’re talking about end-of-life decisions, in the medical field, criminal field, wherever they are – I certainly don’t have any problem with somebody raising it to a debate.”

District Attorney Ligon doesn’t believe Representative Farrar’s bill has a snow balls chance of passing legislation, but he welcomes the debate. And he should, because, just as he stated himself above, contemplating someone’s life requires some measure of prudence. Eye for an eye shouldn’t cut it in a justice motivated society. In the end, do death penalty verdicts ever resolve anything for victims of those who are being executed?

Consider the resent death sentence of Richard Cobb, who was put to death by lethal injection on April 25th, 2013, in Huntsville, Texas, for his part in the abduction and slaying of convenience store clerk Kenneth Vandever, and the abduction and rape of two women.  According to Huffington Post, Cobbs’ last words were without remorse:

“Life is death, death is life. I hope that someday this absurdity that humanity has come to will come to an end. Life is too short. I hope anyone that has negative energy towards me will resolve that. Life is too short to harbor feelings of hatred and anger. That’s it, warden.”

Except that wasn’t really all Cobb’s had left to say. Just as the lethal injection was being administered, Cobb twisted his head back, staring at Huntsville warden James Jones, and said, “Wow! That is great. That is awesome! Thank you, warden! Thank you (expletive) warden!” Cobbs’ head fell back toward his pillow where he remained motionless for some fifteen-minutes. A physician entered the death chamber and declared Richard Cobbs’ time of death at 6:27pm. According to U.S. News report, the father, stepmother, and stepbrother of Kenneth Vandever, and also Nikki Daniels, one of the women abducted and raped and survived, were all among the witnesses viewing Cobbs’ final moments. “I thought he was going to be remorseful, I thought he was going to be apologetic, [I] was hoping that he was going to address me. I saw the same evil person I saw 11 years ago… [His punishment] was far too easy,” Nikki Daniels said to reporters after the execution.

It’s difficult to hear and read these kinds of reports without feeling some sense of vindictiveness toward the assailants. We crave justice for those afflicted. But do we get that justice; do we get the relief we really need from death penalty sentences? In light of these recent events, perhaps Representative Farrar does have a chance to ridding the death penalty from Texas, once and for all, in favor of life without parole, allowing inmates to contemplate their own actions during the duration of their sentence.

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