No easy, short answers to death penalty questions

Kimberly McCarthy, the first woman scheduled to be executed in the United States since 2010, won a reprieve when a state district court halted a lethal injection on Jan. 29, only hours before it was scheduled to take place in Huntsville. Some 13 years ago, a Dallas jury convicted McCarthy of killing an elderly neighbor. The defense lawyer who won her reprieve was Maurie Levin, a UT law professor. Before the state district court, Levin successfully argued that McCarthy needed time to pursue an appeal based on concerns that the selection of her predominately white jury members hinged on their race.  

After prevailing for her client, Levin answered our questions about Texas’ record on the death penalty, race and reforms related to both, as well as why she decided to attend law school.

Daily Texan: What changes have been made to jury selection since your client was convicted in 1998?
Maurie Levin: There have not, to my knowledge, been significant changes since 1998. There have been barely [any notable] decisions in court, including in the United States Supreme Court, that recognize problems with race discrimination in jury selection.

DT: Does racial bias still exist on Texas juries? Where and why?
ML: That is a very big question that is hard to answer in less than a couple of days, perhaps. But do I believe race bias still exists in the selection of juries in capital cases? Yes, I do. I think that in Dallas County in particular, there’s a well-fastened history of discrimination in the selection of juries to the exclusion of African-Americans that created a culture of discriminatory practices that do and don’t continue today.

DT: What examples do you turn to in order to understand whether change could happen?
ML: I’m not trying to change a culture, I’m trying to bring to the court’s attention this issue of Kimberley McCarthy’s case. So if I don’t know, do I think that culture needs to be changed? Yes. I think that exposing instances of bias and discrimination in jury selection that continues to this day is perhaps one important step to making that happen.

DT: Will there ever be a time when they are gone?
ML: Well, that’s like asking if I think we’ll ever live in a culture that does not have racism in it. I hope so. I think that there are systemic issues that facilitate or make it easier for individual human error or human bias to play a role.

DT: How should prosecutors, defense lawyers and state lawmakers go about eradicating long-standing cultures of race -biased jury selection?
ML: I think prosecutors need to not strike people on the basis of their race, and the best lawyers need to be on the lookout and vigilant. And I think the courts need to recognize and not tolerate instances where it does happen and it is brought to their attention.

DT: Do you believe public support for the death penalty will wane in Texas?
ML: Will it? I think that nationally there is increasing recognition of the fallibility of the system, there are increasing numbers of people who have been exonerated, which forces [one] to recognize that there are people who have been wrongly convicted, and that is a trend even in Texas. And some say it is reflected in the decreasing number of death sentences that are handed down by Texas juries — that people are less willing to convict and sentence someone to death — when we have all become so familiar with how easily we get it wrong. So I think Texas, while not perhaps on par with some parts of the rest of the country, has already started to recognize some problems [with the death penalty].

DT: Why are Texas juries so prone to sentencing people to death?
ML: I am frequently asked that question, and I think it is a really difficult one to answer. I think there is a convergence of factors that has lead Texas to lead the pack for death sentences and executions. I don’t think there’s an easy or short answer.

DT: How have UT law school students’ attitudes about the death penalty changed during your time at UT Law?  
ML: I don’t know if I’ve seen an enormous shift in the attitudes of students. I co-teach the capital punishment clinic, and they come into the clinic wanting to learn about how the death penalty is administered and wanting to learn about lawyering, and I think that has remained at a constant.

DT: Why did you become a lawyer and would you advise students to go to law school?
ML: I became a lawyer because I wanted to have the power to effect change. I still believe being a lawyer is a good way to do that. I personally did not go to law school for financial compensation, and I would never suggest to anyone that they do that.