Pace of Texas executions rises after lull

Appellate ruling leads to rescheduling after stays

May 05, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

HOUSTON - After a sharp decline in executions last year, Texas appears likely to become the nation's death penalty capital again. This month alone, seven of its prisoners are to be put to death, a number that would have been eight except that the U.S. Supreme Court granted one a late reprieve on Wednesday.

Texas has accounted for 10 of the 23 executions carried out across the country this year. In addition to the seven set for this month, seven more are scheduled through the end of July. "It suggests it's going to be a pretty busy year as far as executions in Texas," said Larry Fitzgerald, spokesman for the state's Department of Criminal Justice.

The increase follows a decrease to 17 executions in Texas last year from 40 in 2000, its most ever. Oklahoma executed 18 prisoners last year, the most in the country.

The explanation for this year's increase in Texas is the same as that given for last year's decrease: the rhythms of the appeals process. In particular, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest criminal court, stayed a handful of cases last year as it considered whether inmates had a right to competent counsel during their habeas corpus appeals.

A writ of habeas corpus requires a jurisdiction to justify its detention of a person.

Ruling on the issue this year, the court concluded that while Texas law provided prisoners a right to a lawyer for habeas corpus appeals, that provision did not bestow a right to competent counsel. With that avenue of appeal blocked, some executions that were stayed last year have been rescheduled.

The most recent execution occurred Tuesday, when Rodolfo Hernandez, 52, was given a lethal injection for his role in a robbery and murder.

The next night, Curtis Moore, 34, was only three hours from execution when the Supreme Court granted him a reprieve. His lawyers had argued that he was mentally retarded and that his case could be influenced by a Virginia case in which the justices are expected to reconsider the constitutionality of executing retarded offenders.

Dianne Clements, president of Justice for All, a victims' group that supports capital punishment, said the increasing number of executions reflected "the mechanics of the death penalty as it plods along."

"This is the system at its best or worst," Clements said, "depending on how you view it."

She said the rescheduling of executions delayed last year would soothe victims' families, "who have an expectation of the punishment being imposed in some reasonably significant time."

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment, noted that the number of executions nationally, and the number of death sentences, had both declined for the past two years. He attributed this to several factors, among them that more states now offer life without parole as a sentencing option and that others have recently prohibited the execution of retarded offenders.

Ten states have government-appointed commissions examining the fairness of their death penalty systems, he said.

Such changes, Dieter said, have come more slowly in Texas, which since restoring capital punishment in 1982 has carried out 265 executions, more than any other state has. Texas has enacted legislation to improve legal representation of the poor, including those in capital cases, as well as to provide access to DNA testing. But Gov. Rick Perry vetoed a bill prohibiting execution of the retarded, and life without parole is not permitted as a sentencing option.

The case expected to attract the most attention this month is that of Napoleon Beazley, who is to be put to death May 28. His execution, stayed in August by the Court of Criminal Appeals, was rescheduled after the court ruled on the issue of appellate lawyer competency. Beazley was sentenced to death for shooting the father of a federal judge in a botched carjacking.

His case has attracted international notice, and not only because three Supreme Court justices, faced with an appeal that preceded the state court's stay, disqualified themselves because of their ties to the victim's son. Beazley, who was 17 at the time of the murder, has won support from those opposing execution of offenders who commit their crimes before turning 18.

His lawyers are arguing that his execution should be stayed again, on the ground that the arguments before the Supreme Court on retardation apply as well to the constitutionality of executing offenders younger than 18.

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