Bill proposes a two-year moratorium on executions
Death penalty opponents testify at House hearing
By Robert Mayer
Daily Texan Staff
Randall Dale Adams came within 72 hours of being executed for a crime he didn't commit.
Convicted for a police officer's death in a flawed 1977 trial, Adams said the decision was based on testimony from witnesses paid to lie and a prosecutor who regularly lunched with the judge.
Having gone through all appeals, his salvation came by way of a New York filmmaker who made the 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line, based on Adam's case.
"By the grace of God, I have not been executed and am here today," Adams told the House Committee on State Affairs.
Hoping to avoid similar situations, Rep. Harold Dutton Jr., D-Houston, authored House Bill 720, which calls for a two-year moratorium on executions and would create the Texas Capital Punishment Committee.
The committee would study the legal representation of inmates, the possible innocence of persons convicted in capital cases and the appeals process, Dutton said.
"We shouldn't execute people while we're studying the system," he said. "I'm not trying to let anybody escape. I'm trying to fix the system."
Jim Harrington, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said defense attorneys who fall asleep in court or witnesses who offer faulty testimony have too often sent innocent people to death.
"Eyewitness testimony is the most unreliable testimony we have," he said. "We think it's the best, but it's really not."
Since defendants are often poor and unable to afford "dream team" representation, they must depend on the judge to appoint a defense attorney, he said.
However, because defense attorneys in capital punishment cases don't earn large sums of money, Harrington said it's difficult to attract competent attorneys to defend death penalty cases. Furthermore, he said it's difficult to get a judge to allocate money for a thorough investigation.
Harrington added that if the conservative Republican governor of Illinois can call a moratorium, then Texas definitely could.
"What's there to lose, except that we won't kill somebody innocent?" he asked.
A somber tone quickly turned confrontational when the lone dissenter of the proposed moratorium spoke.
William Hubbarth, a member of the victim's rights organization called Justice for All, challenged anyone in the room to prove that the state has executed a single innocent person. He said enough safeguards are in place to ensure due process of the law.
"The system works because it's subjected to checks, balances and reviews that are constantly being put in place," he said.
Legislation presented this session such as post-conviction DNA testing, indigent council and limitations on executing the mentally ill will only add to an already effective system, he said.
"The courts are taking into account every change or nuance in capital punishment," he said.
But others testified about their lives being changed at the hands of the state criminal justice system.
Kerry Cook lived for more than 20 years on death row for the sexual assault and murder of a neighbor. Even when DNA evidence on the victim's clothing eliminated the possibility of his guilt, he said the state continued its prosecution.
"I know we have executed innocent people," he said. "The death penalty is the roll of the dice."