Capital Punishment should be controlled by state

Emma Berdanier

It has been just over five months since Texas last executed someone. This is the longest stay in executions since 2008, when the Supreme Court was on recess and states could charge people with the death penalty but couldn’t execute anyone. With this stay, Texas has only executed 6 people this year, meaning this could be the first year since the death penalty was reinstated in 1974 that Texas’ execution count doesn’t reach double digits. This has caused many to wonder about the future of the death penalty, instead of highlighting the true issue— that the death penalty is enacted differently throughout the 254 counties in Texas.

Leading the states, Texas has carried out 537 executions since 1982. But not all counties handle the death penalty in the same way. 

“If Harris County was a state, it would be second only to Texas [in number of executions],” Jim Marcus, clinical professor at and co-director of the UT Law School’s Capital Punishment Clinic, said. “But there are 254 counties in Texas, and over a hundred of them haven’t used the death penalty.”

If you are prosecuted in Travis County and cannot afford your own lawyer, the county is responsible for funding and appointing your defense lawyer. These appointments are often corrupt, with local judges choosing lawyers who aren’t versed in defending capital punishment cases without state oversight. Other states have statewide indigent defense systems, where the defense lawyers are funded by the state — not the county — and are trained to handle capital punishment cases. In these states, each appeal is overseen by a state office.

“You get the death penalty not for having committed the worst crime, but for having the worst lawyer,” Marcus said. “Texas has chronically and systematically underfunded the defense for years.”

This underfunding is partially due to the defense council not being funded by the state, as many anti-death penalty advocacy groups will attest. Tuesday the Texas Defender Service released a report that highlighted the many mistakes that have been made with death penalty cases from Jan. 2009 to Dec. 2015, and recommended Texas create a state office to oversee death penalty appeals.

In a state where the penal code allows capital felonies to be their own crimes, and where the jury is asked questions that distance them from the severity of the punishment they so often dole out, having a good defense attorney is a basic and necessary human right. A statewide indigent defense system that is funded by the state and forces every death penalty appeal to be overseen by a state office is the only way Texas can hope to account for the disparity in numbers of executions between its different counties. With a system like this in place, it could mean fewer people sent to death row, and that Travis County and Harris County resemble each other enough in their justice systems to make their being a part of the same state more plausible.

Berdainer is a philosphy junior from Boulder, Colorodo. Follow her on twitter @eberdanier