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Report heaps new criticism on Texas death penalty

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Posted: Thursday, September 19, 2013 4:30 am

AUSTIN — A man who spent 18 years on death row in Texas before being exonerated by DNA evidence joined former Gov. Mark White on Wednesday in presenting a report that calls for lawmakers to pursue reforms in the nation’s most active death penalty state.

The new report from the American Bar Association urges the state to strengthen standards for eyewitness identification and require video recordings of suspect interrogations. The 500-page report also recommends reducing barriers to post-conviction DNA testing.

White, who served as governor from 1983 to 1987, oversaw 19 executions during his term. He helped unveil the report along with Anthony Graves, who was wrongfully convicted in the slayings of six family members.

“It reminds us that ultimately the death penalty becomes a very, very personal situation,” White said.

Texas executed its 500th inmate this summer. It has accounted for nearly 40 percent of the more than 1,300 executions carried out since 1977, when a Utah inmate became the first U.S. prisoner executed following the Supreme Court’s clarification of death penalty laws. Virginia is a distant second, nearly 400 executions behind.

In the 1990s, the American Bar Association called for a national moratorium on capital punishment. But authors of the report Wednesday said their findings do not take a position on whether the death penalty should be outlawed.

Eleven inmates have already been executed this year in Texas, and at least seven more are scheduled to die in the coming months. That includes the scheduled execution today of Robert Gene Garza, who was put on death row at the age of 20 after being convicted of participating in a deadly gang ambush in the Rio Grande Valley.

Another execution is scheduled for next week.

The report does praise the state for making some “significant improvements” in capital punishment cases in recent years.

The most well-known is the Michael Morton Act, named in honor of a Texas man who spent 25 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. The law signed by Gov. Rick Perry mandates that prosecutors statewide share case files that can help the defense.

But the report asked that the state do even more for inmates post-conviction. Among the recommendations are requiring the state Board of Pardons and Paroles to conduct public hearings in any case in which clemency is sought.

Dudley Sharp, a vocal death penalty advocate in Texas and resource director for the reform advocacy group Justice for All, said he had not reviewed the entire report.

He criticized one recommendation to review alleged geographic disparities in death-sentence cases as “intellectually dishonest,” arguing that it makes sense that the majority of capital cases would come from the state’s highest-populated areas.

But Sharp said he had no issue with strengthening some rules, such as witness identifications, so long as lawmakers write them properly.

“It really depends on how it’s worded. If you don’t do it like the statute says, you’re never going to get a case to stick,” Sharp said. “The recommendations are fine. It’s how they draw it up is the real problem.”

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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