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Fallible Justice System Erodes Support for TX Death Penalty

December 20, 2011

HOUSTON - Monday's official exoneration of Michael Morton - after serving 25 years in a Texas prison for a murder he did not commit - is just the latest example of a fallible criminal justice system, and one more reason the public is growing increasingly wary of capital punishment, according to Kathryn Kase, a death-penalty lawyer who directs the Texas Defender Service's Trial Project.

Kase thinks public sentiment is approaching a tipping point, reflected, in part, by a sharp decline in Texas executions in 2011.

"Texas hit a 30-year low in new death sentences; we had only eight. We hit a 15-year low in executions; we had only 13. And Texans are having a growing problem with the death penalty."

Recent polls indicate support for capital punishment has dropped nearly 20 points nationwide in the last couple of decades, with a slim majority now preferring to see life sentences without parole. Since Texas began allowing juries to use that option in 2005, Kase says courts have increasingly embraced it as a less-expensive alternative.

Some death-penalty supporters say today's reduced use of capital punishment is not so much a mark of changing opinion as it is a result of falling murder rates. But Kase thinks growing awareness of a combination of factors is at play.

"There are innocent people on death row, the costs are very, very high - compared to life in prison - and we disproportionately use the death penalty against people of color."

Increasing numbers of high-profile, questionable convictions, she says, are taking a toll on the public's imagination - including the case of Michael Morton, exonerated by a Williamson County judge after DNA evidence proved he did not murder his wife. His attorneys are now pursuing charges of misconduct against the then prosecutor who secured his conviction.

While Morton was not on death row, Kase thinks stories like his are causing people to rethink the death penalty.

"People say they'd rather see individuals have life sentences, because we can always go back and undo those if we're wrong. But with the death sentence, if we carry out the execution, we can't practice resurrection and bring them back."

More and more states are abandoning capital punishment altogether, but Kase says some Texas prosecutors are ignoring the changing mood. Six new capital cases and seven executions are scheduled in Texas during the first quarter of next year.

Peter Malof, Public News Service - TX