Texas Leads the Nation in Both Executions and Exonerations
Texas Leads the Nation in Both Executions and Exonerations
by Matt Clarke
Texas has long been notorious for applying the death penalty, executing more prisoners than any other state. Between 1976 and September 1, 2015, Texas carried out 528 executions – nearly five times as many as neighboring Oklahoma, which ranked second in the U.S. according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
More recently, however, Texas has become known for the flip side of the capital punishment coin – leading the nation in the number of exonerations, passing the most generous compensation package for wrongfully convicted prisoners of any other state, and enacting laws to help prevent wrongful convictions and hold prosecutors responsible.
From 1994 to 2014, Texas saw 52 prisoners exonerated after DNA evidence revealed they did not commit the crimes for which they had been convicted and sentenced, according to the Innocence Project. Counting all wrongful convictions, including those not involving DNA evidence, there have been 215 confirmed exonerations in Texas.
“The big story for the year is that more prosecutors are working hard to identify and investigate claims of innocence,” said Samuel Gross, who authored a 2014 report for the National Registry of Exonerations (NRE). “And many more innocent defendants were exonerated after pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit,” he added.
“Judging from known exonerations in 2014, the legal system is increasingly willing to act on innocence claims that have often been ignored: those without biological evidence or with no perpetrator who can be identified because in fact no crime was committed; cases with comparatively light sentences; and judgments based on guilty pleas by defendants who accepted plea bargains to avoid pre-trial detention and the risk of harsher punishment after trial,” the NRE report stated.
A number of Texas death row exonerees joined a gathering of those who support abolishing the death penalty at a “Day of Innocence” rally on March 3, 2015 at the Texas State Capitol.
“Texans have become less and less confident in the legal systems to protect the innocent,” state Rep. Harold Dutton told the gathering. “Texas has not fixed its legal processes, so that we cannot guarantee someone who is innocent does not get executed.” Dutton has filed legislation to abolish capital punishment in Texas during every legislative session for the past dozen years.
Among others attending the rally was Sabrina Butler, the only woman in the U.S. sentenced to death and later exonerated. Butler served six-and-a-half years in prison for killing her baby in 1990, when she was 17 years old.
“They pretty much knew what they wanted to do before they saw me,” Butler said about her trial and conviction. “He stopped breathing, and I tried to apply CPR and applied it the wrong way,” she stated. It was only later that doctors discovered her baby suffered from a disease which resulted in the damage police suspected was caused by Butler.
Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia pay compensation to people who were wrongfully convicted and exonerated; on average, 65% of exonerees nationwide have received compensation. But no state offers a package as generous as in Texas.
From 1992 to 2013, Texas officials paid more than $65 million to exonerated former prisoners. The current compensation plan results from the 2009 Tim Cole Act, named after a prisoner who died while still trying to prove he was wrongfully convicted of rape. He was exonerated posthumously. The Act provides for a lump payment of $80,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration plus an $80,000 annual annuity, 100 hours of free college tuition and free health insurance at the same level provided to state employees. [See: PLN, Dec. 2009, p.26; July 2009, p.12].
In comparison, compensation paid to exonerees in other states ranges from a flat rate in Wisconsin – $25,000 regardless of length of imprisonment – to Vermont’s $30,000 to $60,000 per year of wrongful incarceration. Compensation statutes in some states are more stringent than in others; Florida, for example, has a “clean hands” provision that prohibits payments to anyone who has a prior felony conviction, even if they are later wrongfully convicted of another crime. [See: PLN, Aug. 2011, p.30; Sept. 2010, p.27].
According to a November 23, 2014 news article in the Tulsa World, only six of 28 wrongfully convicted people in Oklahoma have received any money from the state – including just one of six former death row prisoners who were exonerated.
Statewide, compensation for exonerees in Texas reached a peak of almost $22 million in 2010, dropping to just over $19 million in 2012.
“The justice system in Texas has fundamental flaws, and this is the result,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, referring to the large cost of compensation and legislation that has been proposed to address issues related to wrongful convictions. “At this point, I don’t think anyone can seriously doubt that we have a problem – a big problem.”
If Tim Cole became the rallying cry for lawmakers to increase compensation for the wrongfully convicted, then Michael Morton was the embodiment of the move to prevent future miscarriages of justice. In 2011, DNA evidence exonerated Morton in the 1987 murder of his wife; he has since become an outspoken advocate for changing Texas laws to prevent wrongful convictions and to hold prosecutors accountable for their misconduct.
One such measure requires that all evidence in a criminal trial be fully disclosed and not hidden by prosecutors or the police. The bill makes prosecutors criminally liable for suppressing exculpatory evidence.
The legislation draws directly on Morton’s own experience. A court of inquiry investigation into misconduct by former Williamson County prosecutor Ken Anderson revealed there was a deliberate “concealment of evidence” that was “intended to defraud the court” in order to obtain Morton’s conviction. Anderson was subsequently charged with criminal contempt, fabricating evidence and other offenses; he pleaded no contest, surrendered his law license and served five days in jail. [See: PLN, Nov. 2014, p.1].
In 1984, James Curtis Williams and Raymond Jackson, two black men, were convicted of pistol whipping and raping a white woman in Dallas, and sentenced to life in prison. Jackson was paroled in 2010, followed by Williams in 2011. The Dallas Conviction Integrity Unit, a creation of then-Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, accepted their requests for DNA testing. The tests not only showed that neither man had committed the rape, but also generated a DNA hit on two other men who were in prison on unrelated charges. Jackson and Williams were officially exonerated in 2012. Both received compensation.
On June 25, 1980, Anthony Massingill was convicted of aggravated robbery and aggravated rape. He served 34 years before being exonerated on October 17, 2014. His conviction hinged on an eyewitness who mistakenly identified him as the perpetrator; according to the Innocence Project, eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of false convictions that eventually lead to exonerations.
The Innocence Project cites “unvalidated or improper forensic science” as the second leading factor responsible for nearly half the wrongful convictions nationwide. It’s the reason why Rickey Dale Wyatt was officially exonerated on December 18, 2014 after being convicted of aggravated rape. Wyatt served 33 years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice before he was declared innocent.
Of the prisoners in Texas exonerated by DNA evidence, nearly half originated in Dallas County, home of the Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences, the laboratory used by both the Dallas police and sheriff’s departments to conduct tests on biological evidence. Authorities in Dallas preserve crime scene evidence for decades, which allows for re-testing.
The wrongfully convicted in Dallas also had a sympathetic ear in the District Attorney’s office. Craig Watkins, the first African-American elected to that office, had a reputation for aggressively pushing for the exoneration of people with credible claims of innocence. He was defeated in his re-election bid on November 5, 2014 after eight years in office.
Sadly, despite Texas’ extensive experience with wrongful convictions – including 13 exonerations in which people had been sentenced to death – the capital punishment machinery grinds on. Texas had ten executions in 2014, more than any other state.
Sources: Texas Monthly, Austin American-Statesman, www.innocenceproject.org, www.latimes.com, www.sacurrent.com, www.dallasnews.com, www.deathpenaltyinfo.org, www.law.umich.edu, Tulsa World