As an extension of a statewide project that the Hood County News initiated last fall in conjunction with the Texas Center for Community Journalism (TCCJ), the newspaper is embarking on a death row study that sources within the justice system say has never before been done.
The HCN is researching the individual attorneys involved in each death penalty case since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. The newspaper will note the prosecutors as well as the defense lawyers, and will also document the amount of time that elapsed between indictment and sentencing.
According to those who work in the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Capital Punishment Project, defense attorneys should have a minimum of one year in order to adequately prepare for trial when their client is facing the death penalty.
The HCN’s research will involve a number of trips to Austin to review case files in the basement of the Court of Criminal Appeals in the Supreme Court building next to the Capitol, as well as to the state archives.
Pertinent documents in each case will be scanned and later made available to the Texas Tribune and to newspapers across the state.
A reporter for the HCN recently spent two days at the Court of Criminal Appeals getting started on the research project.
Sources within the justice system say that the information gleaned from the research will provide valuable insight into how people are sentenced to death in Texas.
“No journalist in Texas has sought to compile this data, nor considered what it says about capital punishment as practiced by the state of Texas,” said Kathryn Kase, executive director of Texas Defender Service in Houston. “Occurring at a time when Texas has committed its 500th execution, the Hood County News’ research project is both necessary and timely.”
Brian Stull, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, also praised the endeavor.
“Learning who the trial attorney was in each case resulting in a Texas death sentence would be very valuable,” he said. “Anecdotally, we knew that the defendants with the worst lawyers – not the worst crimes – are the ones condemned to die. Research like this teaches the public about the truths of the death penalty.”
Publisher Jerry Tidwell said that the HCN is not taking a stand one way or the other regarding the death penalty, nor will the newspaper interpret the data gleaned from the research.
Tidwell, a graduate of Texas Christian University (TCU), said the HCN will continue working closely with the TCU-based TCCJ in sharing the information. Last fall, the Center posted articles from two justice-related series sponsored by the HCN and made them available to other community newspapers throughout the state.
One series was called “Justice for All,” and covered a range of topics pertaining to various issues currently at the forefront of the Texas justice system.
The other was “Routier Revisited: Was Darlie Unjustly Convicted?” That series re-examined the capital murder case of a Rowlett housewife accused of stabbing to death her two oldest sons. The crime occurred shortly after the nation was riveted by the sensational Susan Smith case out of South Carolina. The young mother drove her car into the dark waters of a lake with her two little boys strapped inside in their car seats.
Smith, who confessed, was given a life sentence. Routier, who has always maintained her innocence, was sentenced to die by lethal injection.
Books based on both HCN series are currently under consideration by TCU Press.
While the Hood County News has long had a commitment to examining the level of representation provided by court-appointed defense attorneys, it was the Routier series that caused the newspaper to take a look at individual prosecutors.
Former Dallas County Assistant District Attorney Greg Davis, one of the prosecutors in the Routier case, has reportedly put 20 people on death row. That number raised concern with Stull at the ACLU when the Hood County News informed him of Davis’ death penalty track record.
Davis is now an assistant district attorney for McLennan County.
Two weeks ago, on the night an HCN reporter arrived in Austin to begin the research, the state marked its 500th execution since the reinstatement of the death penalty. Kimberly McCarthy, convicted of killing her elderly neighbor in Lancaster and cutting off her finger to take her ring, was prosecuted by Davis.
Tidwell said he has no opinion on the McCarthy case, or on Davis’ prosecutorial track record.
“Our research is not about being soft on crime or not holding criminals accountable when they commit heinous acts,” he said. “It is about collecting data that can be used as a tool by others and which can be judged by others. The Hood County News will make no judgments as to whether a prosecutor is overly zealous or whether a defense attorney didn’t adequately do his or her job.”
“However,” he continued, “the more times that the names of particular prosecutors and defense attorneys pop up in our research, the more we should all be paying attention.”
Andrea Marsh, founder of the Texas Fair Defense Project, said the research will be important in an area that is of great interest to her: whether court-appointed defense attorneys have case loads that prevent them from adequately representing someone who is on trial for their life.
“Recent data out of Houston shows that 20 percent of the private lawyers who represent indigent defendants have case loads above the national standards, and some of these overloaded lawyers are representing defendants in death penalty cases,” she said.
“This study will provide the information we need to look systematically at the death penalty case loads of defense lawyers who represented multiple defendants who were sent to death row and examine whether they had enough time to defend their clients.”
Tommy Thomason, founding director of the TCCJ, said he is “excited that it is a journalist from a community newspaper in Texas who has taken on this important project.” The Center is helping to fund the study.
“We see many stories about the trials conducted in Texas, but few about the system itself and how it operates,” Thomason said.
“Projects like this take a lot of digging, and they represent a real investment of time. The Hood County News deserves the thanks of all Texans for leading the way in investigating these trends.”
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