Before the end of the year, Texas is scheduled to execute four people. Last year, our state executed 13 men—a full half of the country-wide execution count. In those same 12 months, five men originally sent to death row saw their sentences commuted or reduced. Though our state’s execution rate has been steadily declining over the past 15 years, there are still over 200 prisoners waiting to be executed. How many of them have a good case for a sentence reduction? How many might die before the right person appeals on their behalf?
The Death Penalty Takes Away Inmates’ Chance for Justice
Death sentences are reserved for the worst of crimes, but despite the fact that juries can levy a punishment of life without parole, many have been issued in cases that, on further inspection, did not merit such an outcome. In February, the Supreme Court ruled that a Texas inmate first convicted in 1980 could not be executed due to his intellectual disability. This July, an appeals court overturned the decisions of lower courts by ruling that a convicted woman was not given a fair trial. Only a protracted legal process helped these individuals forestall death.
However, not all inmates have the chance to keep fighting in this way. Though the Constitution guarantees anyone accused of a crime the right to a public defender, this right only extends through the initial trial and one appeal. After that, the defendant must retain counsel on their own. Those without the resources to do so have no further recourse, even if they are innocent.
Though an inmate sentenced to life in prison has hope that the years will uncover the evidence needed to commute or vacate their sentence, someone on death row may not receive that relief in time. Denied the right to a retrial due to their execution, these inmates may die because of an unnecessarily severe sentence or even wrongful conviction due to trial errors. This is not the justice Americans deserve.
False Accusations, Shoddy Evidence
Some death row criminals have had their sentences reduced because a death penalty was deemed too harsh for the crime; others have had reasonable doubt cast upon their guilt, or even been cleared when evidence contrary to their conviction surfaces. 166 Americans, including 13 Texans, have proven their innocence from death row since 1973.
Exonerated by DNA
In one such story, Michael Blair was convicted of murder despite his claims of innocence. Potentially biased by his past record as a sex offender, the jury declared him guilty and awarded the harshest possible penalty. After 14 years in jail, Blair and his defense team presented DNA evidence that counteracted the unreliable eyewitness accounts and shaky forensics the prosecution had used in the initial trial. Though still in prison due to other convictions, Blair no longer faces execution.
Executed Without Sufficient Review
As reporters and activists dig into past capital crimes, they’ve uncovered evidence that calls the justice of past executions into question. Many prosecutors, chasing a guilty verdict to boost their profile, use unscientific evidence or coerced testimony to sway the jury. Here are the stories from Texas history that show how prosecutorial malpractice can result in the execution of innocent citizens.
- Carlos DeLuna was executed in 1989 for stabbing a convenience store worker. Later, another man—who looked much like DeLuna and had a history of similar crimes—confessed to the murder.
- Ruben Cantu was accused of killing a man during a robbery gone wrong and was executed in 1993. Two key witnesses for the prosecution have since recanted their statements, with one explicitly citing pressure from the police as the reason for his false testimony.
- David Spence was convicted for three murders despite the complete lack of physical evidence linking him to the crime. The witnesses for the prosecution were all prison inmates who made a deal with a narcotics cop on the case.
- Gary Graham maintained he was innocent of the charges facing him: robbery and a shooting in Houston. Two nearby witnesses who stated Graham was not the person behind the crime were never interviewed by the public defender assigned to the case.
- Claude Jones, convicted of a liquor store shooting, was placed at the scene by a strand of hair. Though lawyers requested a DNA test of the hair before Jones’ execution, their action to stay his death was not granted. The Texas Innocence Project took up the case, and the DNA evidence proved that the hair belonged to the victim, not the attacker.
- Cameron Willingham was accused of killing his three children in a house fire. He maintained his innocence throughout the trial process, but the prosecution convinced another convict to falsely testify that Willingham had confessed to the crime. Later, evidence presented in another similar case suggested the fire was not caused by arson at all.
- Lester Bower contested his conviction for 30 years from death row, where he was sent after circumstantial evidence linked him to the murder of four men. Bower’s lawyers found proof that the prosecution had withheld evidence, and two women later came forward with the name of the actual killer. Unfortunately, they were too late to save him from execution.
- Richard Masterson was convicted of a murder that may have just been a natural death on the testimony of an uncredentialed medical examiner who gave false testimony. A second and third opinion solicited by the defense suggested that the death was caused by a heart attack. Though the medical examiner was fired, the prosecution held up Masterson’s confession, made during a period of drug withdrawal that had caused suicidal behavior, as evidence in their case.
- Robert Pruett told prosecutors he had been framed for a prison murder. Despite “inconclusive” DNA evidence, the prosecutor pressed forward with coerced testimony from other prisoners to get the guilty verdict.
- Larry Swearingen was executed this year despite his lawyers raising heavy questions about every piece of forensic evidence provided in the case. The medical examiner, who set the timeline for the murder, later recanted her statement, making his involvement an impossibility. Blood found on the scene did not match Swearingen’s DNA, but the prosecution argued with no scientific basis that the body had been contaminated after the murder.
When “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” Isn’t Enough
Cases that seem airtight when presented in the shadow of a horrible crime may not be as strong as prosecutors claim. When bad things happen, the state wants to hold someone accountable. Unfortunately, this often results in prosecutors fabricating the evidence to fit their accusations. Wrongful imprisonment is bad enough—but for this conduct to lead to wrongful execution is inexcusable.
We fight hard to protect your rights, and the truth, in tough cases. LaHood Norton Law Group’s lawyers used to work as prosecutors, so we know what you might face when you’re on the stand. Our criminal law expertise will be put to work to defend you against prosecutorial overreach. If you’re caught in criminal charges, don’t settle for a second-class defense attorney.