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Texas Death Machine Faces Renewed Criticism

A report released October 16, 2000 by the Texas Defender Service, a nonprofit group that represents death row prisoners, concludes that "an intolerably high number of people are being sentenced to death [in Texas] and propelled through the appellate courts in a process that lacks the integrity to reliably identify the guilty or meaningfully distinguish those among them who deserve a sentence of death."

The report, t A State of Denial: Texas Justice and the Death Penalty, follows another critical study released a month earlier by a committee of the State Bar of Texas that described the state's system of providing legal representation to the poor as "a national embarrassment."

Maurie Levin, a lawyer for the Texas Defender Service, said the group examined hundreds of capital trials and appeals, including every published death penalty decision rendered by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest criminal court, since 1976.

One of the report's central contentions is that the appeals process is too cursory. It examined 103 appeals cases and found that in 79 percent of them, the judge never held an evidentiary hearing. In these appeals, the report also found, lawyers for death row prisoners often did a shoddy job, failing to conduct an investigation in search of new evidence or neglecting to raise new issues for appeal.

The report also alleges that 121 Texas prisoners have been sentenced to death based on questionable "expert" psychiatric testimony used during the sentencing phase of a trial to convince jurors that a defendant was a future danger to society. It cited cases involving Dr. James Grigson, a psychiatrist who in 1995 was expelled by the American Psychiatric Association "for arriving at psychiatric diagnosis without first having examined the individuals in question." The report found that Dr. Grigson, who is usually paid by the prosecution for his "expert" testimony, had testified in at least 390 capital cases in Texas.

The report also documented the use of jailhouse informers and prosecutorial misconduct. In at least 43 cases, the report said, prosecutors relied on jailhouse snitches who had been deemed unreliable. The report also found 41 cases in which state officials "intentionally distorted the truthseeking process," including examples of prosecutors concocting patently bogus theories, the deliberate withholding of exculpatory evidence, or knowingly presenting false evidence to win convictions.

One example cited in the report involved Willie Williams and Joseph Nichols, two men convicted of a murder in which a deli owner was shot to death by a single bullet. In the punishment phase of Mr. Williams' trial, the prosecutor argued that he was the gunman. But in the punishment phase of Mr. Nichols' subsequent trial, the same prosecutor argued that Nichols was the actual gunman. Both men were sentenced to death. Williams was executed in 1995; Nichols remains on death row.

Source: New York Times

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