Death penalties show racial pattern in Houston

Although this should be filed in the “no shit?” category, as it is too obvious to be news … a recent study documents a pattern of “racial” bias in the imposition of the death penalty in Harris County, Texas (Houston). Data from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice show the county accounts for half of the 121 “black” death row inmates in the State of Texas. Even more significant is the fact that 12 of the last 13 men sentenced to death in Harris County are … you guessed it … “black.” Court records show you would have to go back seven years to 2004 to find the last time a “white” person received the death penalty in a Houston courtroom. Data also show Harris County alone is responsible for more than a third of Texas’ total population of 305 inmates currently awaiting execution.

For more than a decade the Innocence Project has been successful in using DNA to exonerate innocent people who have been victims of mistaken identifications, improper forensic science, false confessions, police corruption, and prosecutorial misconduct. The project has freed 280 persons convicted in thirty-five states and the District of Columbia. Seventeen of those freed served time on death row. And 70% of those exonerated have been minorities. Texas ranks number one in terms of death row inmates and executions in the United States. One can only wonder how many innocent people have been murdered by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and how many await execution or are serving sentences for crimes they didn’t commit.

The recent findings of “racial” bias in Houston have promoted a call for further investigation. However, Patricia Lycos, the current Harris County District Attorney, has defended as “race neutral” and “fact based” her office’s decision-making process in seeking and prosecuting death penalty cases. Elected to office as a reformer in 2009, Lycos replaced Chuck Rosenthal, who had acquired the nickname “Mr. Execution” during his scandal-filled tenure as Harris County D.A.

Rosenthal achieved national recognition of a sort when he appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court to plead the constitutionality of a 19th century Texas law against sodomy in Lawrence v. Texas, a case involving two gay men. The court in a 6-3 decision held the law violated a citizen’s right to privacy. Rosenthal also sought the death penalty in the case against Andrea Yates, the mentally-ill women who drowned her five children in a bathtub. In the case of George Rodriguez, who served 17 years for a kidnapping and rape he didn’t commit, and who was finally exonerated based on DNA evidence, Rosenthal’s refusal to acknowledge his innocence eventually resulted in a federal jury award of 5 million dollars to Rodriguez for wrongful conviction and for the false testimony of a county crime lab technician that contributed to it (the county has appealed the case repeatedly to avoid paying).

Mr. Execution’s eventual undoing came in the typical fashion of many politicians (especially Republicans) who have run for office and been elected on the platform of being devout Christians. His particular brand of hypocrisy came to light in a massive scandal that occupied local media for months. A civil suit filed by two Hispanic brothers who were arrested for filming an illegal police raid on their neighbor’s home brought to light a horde of emails that exposed Mr. Execution’s extra-martial affair with an assistant (to whom he had given an $11,000 raise). The suit also forced the revelation of a series of sexually explicit and racist emails Mr. Execution gleefully had exchanged with other local Republican officials including the sheriff. One email included a photo of a black man lying on the ground surrounded by watermelon rinds and a bucket of chicken with the caption: “Fatal Overdose.”

Given Rosenthal’s zeal for the death penalty and his overt racism it should come as no surprise that he prosecuted eight of the ten “black” men sent to death row in Harris County prior to 2008. Subsequently exposed in several trials as unfit to serve in any public office, he should have been made to pay a severe penalty for his violation of the law and the public’s trust. It is too bad he and other prosecutors like him can’t be made to serve every day of the sentences of people like George Rodriguez who were wrongfully convicted and then willfully denied exoneration. At the least he should become the national “poster boy” in the campaign to abolish the death penalty.

Every day in America we see proof time and time again, Justice may wear a blindfold but it is not color blind.

Read the full story here: Harris death penalties show racial pattern – Houston Chronicle.


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