Tags: capital punishment | Texas

Executing Innocence in Texas

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By Monday, 15 June 2020 08:36 AM Current | Bio | Archive

Rarely are the nation's eyes more fixed on the country's justice system and its disturbing flaws than they are right now.

We're seeing how easily innocent life is snuffed out at the hands of the government, how quickly our constitutional rights are disregarded and how little concern many have for the sanctity of human life and individual liberty.

Just as police continue to display brazen acts of brutality at protests condemning these very actions, states also continue to act with impunity in the face of growing criticism.

While much of the country is focused on saving lives in the midst of a global pandemic, a small number of states are continuing to carry out executions. Missouri recently executed a man with significant innocence claims; Oklahoma intends to kill Julius Jones, whose problematic case was detailed in the documentary "The Last Defense"; and Texas has scheduled an execution for a man named Ruben Gutierrez.

Gutierrez's case is as abysmal as many of the others we've recently witnessed in Texas. It involves a coerced confession, something for which law enforcement has become notorious. In fact, the Innocence Project estimates that 25% of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence also involved a false confession.

Upon initial investigations, police threatened Gutierrez with his wife and his children and elicited just such a statement. Gutierrez quickly recanted and has maintained his innocence for over two decades, most of it spent in solitary confinement. The only other evidence in the case was the testimony of a dubious witness.

It's shocking how little proof there needs to be in order to sentence a man to die. There is no physical or forensic evidence tying Gutierrez to the case. But significantly, there is DNA evidence that could exonerate him — DNA evidence the state is refusing to test.

If this sounds outlandish to you, it should. But unfortunately it's all too common. The problems with DNA evidence in our system run deep and wide. To begin with, this type of evidence is available in only 10% or fewer of cases. But many jurors and other actors in the justice system expect to see forensics in the courtroom and place way too much faith in the science's reliability — leading to what many have dubbed the "CSI effect."

The data behind forensics is not nearly as foolproof as many would like to believe. Many practices used to convict people — such as microscopic hair analysis, bullet ballistics testing, bitemark evidence and blood spatter analysis — have been debunked as junk science. Though they're no longer allowed in courtrooms as evidence, the cases in which they were used to sentence have not been retried.

And the misapplication of DNA evidence has been responsible in 45% of the thousands of wrongful convictions discovered thus far. Whether that misapplication be the result of contamination in the lab, faulty testing practices, labs that are overeager to produce results for the prosecution, or flat-out lies by scientists who've provided testimony on the government's behalf, all of it should make Americans wary of trusting this system with matters of life and death.

All of that said, DNA evidence can be a powerful tool, especially when used to check the state's results — which with one person exonerated from death row for every nine executions, we know to be faulty. But getting states to allow for DNA to be tested post-conviction is nearly impossible.

Too many Americans are under the impression that our lengthy appellate process is rigorously checking for errors, potential innocence or new information. In reality, this process could best be described as the state jumping through a number of hoops to uphold its own case. At best, the appellate process is ensuring that the defendant had adequate legal counsel, was mentally fit for trial and that prosecutorial misconduct was not committed. The bar for all of these is so embarrassingly low that the appellate process really ends up operating as a bit of justice system theater. It may look like we're dotting the i's and crossing the t's, but really we're just checking the boxes.

If Texas moves forward with the execution of Ruben Gutierrez, it certainly won't be the first person the Lone Star State has killed with potential innocence issues. Just last year, the state similarly killed Larry Swearingen. Officials only backed off the execution of another man with valid innocence claims, Rodney Reed, thanks to tremendous public outcry.

Don't look away from what they do next. Most of these operations have been allowed to function in the darkness for decades. If they execute a potentially innocent man while the spotlight on justice glares full force, just imagine what they'll do when it fades.

Hannah Cox is the National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. Hannah was previously Director of Outreach for the Beacon Center of Tennessee, a free-market think tank. Prior to that, she was Director of Development for the Tennessee Firearms Association and a policy advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Read Hannah Cox's Reports — More Here.

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It's shocking how little proof there needs to be in order to sentence a man to die.
capital punishment, Texas
Monday, 15 June 2020 08:36 AM
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