History of the Death Penalty, Globally and in Texas
The idea of punishing crimes with death is far from being new. According to the existing historical accounts, the earliest death penalty laws date back to the 1800s B.C., when the King Hammurabi of Babylon implemented it as a penalty for 25 different types of crimes. As humankind evolved, the range and variety of punishments for criminals increased exponentially to include an array of approaches to sentencing those that have overstepped the law; however, capital punishment remained in nearly every legislation. As a result, the concept of the death penalty was transported to the U.S., where it would become one of the main tools for containing the increasing levels of crime.
Although most of the U.S. has outlawed capital punishment, it is still practiced in several states as a legal repercussion for several types of crimes. Since the death penalty implies an irreversible outcome, and misjudgments and errors can occur in the legal system, the current approach toward the death penalty and its legitimacy as a form of punishment must be revisited in the Texas legal framework.
Texas’ Reputation as It Relates to the Death Penalty
Remarkably, Texas has gained quite a notoriety over the years due to its approach to the death penalty. Although it has been quite a while since the last execution took place in Texas in 1964 by electrocution, the rapid-fire nature of the sentencing process in Texas and the resulting increase in the number of death penalties per defendant has been the source of numerous concerns and reproach in other states. Additionally, the fact that the process of appealing the court’s decision takes place via the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in Texas increases the probability of defendants being found guilty since the Fifth Circuit is notorious for its conservative nature and judgment. Therefore, Texas has a somewhat dubious reputation regarding its use of the death penalty option.
Furthermore, the threat of the court failing to provide a fair judgment and, therefore, sentencing an innocent person to capital punishment will always remain a possibility. As the case of Carlos DeLuna has shown, the current legal system is flawed, and errors remain a possibility. However, while in the states where capital punishments are outlawed, amending the situation is possible, in Texas, only posthumous exoneration will remain a possibility. Therefore, the reputation that Texas has earned over the years among other U.S. states due to its current regulations regarding the use of capital punishment is quite shaky and controversial.
Exonerations in General, and Specifically to Texas
As emphasized above, the problem of failing to ensure that the judgement passed by the jury is fully and irrefutably true may lead to the threat of accusing and executing the wrong person. The current regulations as per the exoneration of the accused in Texas is possible due to the presence of the death row, which prevents the state from executing the sentencing immediately.1 According to the official statistical data, due to the exoneration framework adopted in Texas and despite the deeply flawed appeal system, a total of 185 people have been successfully exonerated from the death sentence.2 The described outcome indicates that the present approach toward using the capital punishment as the ultimate repercussion for certain types of crimes is unreasonable and unreliable due to the probability of an innocent person being wrongfully accused.
However, while being a particularly problematic case in relation to its death penalty regulations, Texas is not the only state that has issues with the exoneration routine. According to the recent statistical data, the rest of the United States also show rather low exoneration rates and, therefore, the opportunity for people to prove their innocence.3 Even in relation to the crimes that are unrelated to death penalty, the rates of people that have been proven to be innocent is quite low, with a total of 1,944 cases having been discovered since 1989.4 However, it should be noted that the introduction of the DNA analysis as the means if providing the proof of one’s guilt or innocence has offered tremendous help in discovering the cases of false accusations and proving people innocent.5 Therefore, the exoneration statistics indicates hat a significant number of people are accused wrongfully despite the comparatively advanced legal system. Consequently, utilizing the death penalty as the means of retaliation, even for some of the most heinous crimes, appears to be unfair since it eliminates the opportunity for the accused to receive exoneration in case of a misjudgment.
3 Death Penalty Cases in Texas
In order to understand the problems of the currently used penal system in Texas, particularly, the state’s unwillingness to part with the concept of a capital punishment as an outdated and honestly dangerous means of restoring justice, one will need to consider several court cases that have become quite well-known due to the controversial nature of the judgment results.
An Exoneration/Wrongful Conviction
As emphasized above, relying on the death penalty as the means of retaliation, even for some of the most outrageous crimes, does not seem acceptable due to the possibility of a court error. The case of Carlos DeLuna is one of the most frequently cited examples of the justice system delivering the wrong outcome. Unfortunately, in some cases, averting the fatal outcome in case of a mistrial becomes impossible. The tragic death of Carlos DeLuna mentioned above is one of the most egregious and tragic examples of the Texas penal system failing people and leading to the execution of an innocent man. According to the case details, the murder of which DeLuna was convicted occurred on February 4, 1983, when 24-year-old Wanda Lopez, who worked at a gas station at the time, was stabbed to death by a stranger.
Having become suspicious of a stranger that suddenly appeared at the gas station at night, Wanda attempted at calling the police and was attacked while being on the phone.6 The murder was witnessed by two passers-by, Kevan Baker and George Aguirre.7 Shortly after obtaining the descriptions of the suspect, the police located Carlos DeLuna with a rather incriminating evidence, namely, the money that had presumably been taken from the deceased.8 DeLuna was promptly convicted after a brief investigation, during which some inculpatory evidence such as scratches on his face was found.9 After a comparatively brief trial, DeLuna was placed on a death row, which led to his execution in 1989.10 However, after his death, further evidence pointing to his innocence and the guilt of another man, Carlos Hernandez, surfaced.11 Despite the fact that the exoneration has not yet been issued, the existing evidence points unambiguously to the fact that a wrong person was executed due to a trial error.
The case at hand illustrates the problematic nature of Texas death penalty regulations. Although the presence of the appeal opportunity and the fact that the convicted are not executed immediately after the trial, the possibility of an error leaves very little doubt that the current system is broken. Due to the imperfections in the investigation and trial processes, as well as the undeniable presence of malpractice in some of the law enforcement units, the outcome of an investigation and, thus, the results of a trial may lead to a wrong person being sentenced to death.12 Thus, the system must be revisited and changed.
A Posthumous Exoneration
Similarly, the instances of posthumous exoneration have been quite common in Texas due to the nature of its legal and penal systems. For instance, in 2010, Timothy Brian Cole, who had been executed in 1985 was exonerated for the charges of a rape that he did not commit.13 The case of Timothy Cole is especially egregious since it involved the death of an innocent man due to an appalling error in judgment. In the case under analysis, the defendant was accused of an assault, rape, and robbery of a 24-year-old Michele Mallin, who was brutally attacked in her own car. Mallin provided a rather vague description of the perpetrator to the police, mentioning his clothes and the fact that he was African American.14 In turn, the police connected the attack on Mallin to several other ones, thus, concluding that the criminal should be a serial rapist.15
Having set surveillance on the campus, where the police assumed the perpetrator to hide, hey quickly located Timothy Cole.16 Despite him having an alibi of studying at home at the time of the crime, he was accused and sentenced to 25 years in prison.17
A Pending Death Row Case
However atrocious the instances of posthumous exonerations due to the error of justice could seem, the cases that are current and involve the pending death row are particularly aggravating since any assistance for the wrongfully accused is nearly impossible. The case of Melissa Lucio, a woman who allegedly killed her two-year-old child, is an accurate example of the problems in the current penal system of the U.S., and, particularly, Texas.
After the case had been tried in the 13th Judicial District Court, Melissa Lucio was sentenced to death by a lethal injection.18 However, the penalty is still pending as Lucio remains on the death row.19 The case at hand illustrates the disconnection between the beliefs of the jury, the evidence represented in the case, and the goals that the penal system, must pursue.
Specifically, even though the case might seem quite clear, it is not fully possible to claim that Lucio is guilty beyond the reasonable doubt. Namely, the case does not provide the overwhelmingly al-embracive evidence that would point to her doubtless guilt in the murder of the child. Granted that Lucio’s maltreatment and abuse of her daughter has been effectively proven, with the deceased’s body containing several trauma and injuries indicative of the respective abuse, these pieces of evidence serve only as indirect ones to the fact of murder. Therefore, as long as Lucio’s case is not proven ultimately, placing her at death row appears to be a failure to conduct a thorough investigation that would allow determining her guilt without any room for possible doubt left.
Due to the irreversible nature of the outcomes that the death penalty entails, it needs to be eradicated from the penal system of the U.S. and, particularly, Texas. The available criminal cases indicate that the probability of an error or a mistrial is far too significant for the death penalty to be allowed as one of the punishment options. Moreover, the very notion of the death penalty defeats the concept of punishment, turning it into an act of vengeance.
Although the retribution that capital punishment implies may cause the perpetrator’s victims a modicum of emotional satisfaction, the long-term effects of the death penalty on the key stakeholders, primarily the victims and the community, are aggravating. Moreover, the possibility of an error or a mistrial defeats the very purpose of the death penalty since it suggests that an innocent person may be subjected to capital punishment. As the existing cases of the death penalty in Texas involving innocent and guilty defendants have shown, it is crucial to retain humanity even in the face of adversity and violence, which the death penalty does not provide. Therefore, the practice of capital punishment must be abandoned and replaced with the maximum prison sentence.
Sahni, Sanjeev P., and Mohita Junnarkar. The Death Penalty: Perspectives from India and Beyond. New York, NY: Springer Nature, 2020.
Bullard, Tymya. “History and Experience of the Death Penalty: Is It a Violation of Human Rights?” A Student-Based Journal Devoted to Discussions on Law and Criminal Justice 1 (2020): 24-28.
Chan, Justin. ’The Phantom’: The Unjust Execution of Carlos DeLuna.” Innocent Project. Web.
Demers, Claire. A Culture of Capital Punishment: A Look at Texas and the Death Penalty from Pre-Republic to Present. Fort Worth, TX: Texas Christian University, 2018.
LaPorte, Gerald M. “Wrongful Convictions and DNA Exonerations: Understanding the Role of Forensic Science.” National Institute of Justice. Web.
“Timothy Cole.” Innocent Project. 2021. Web.
Updegrove, Alexander H., and Dennis R. Longmire. “Systems Thinking, System Justification, and the Death Penalty: Thirty-Eight Years of Capital Punishment Legislation in Texas.” Corrections 3, no. 4 (2018): 248-265.
- Claire Demers, A Culture of Capital Punishment: A Look at Texas and the Death Penalty from Pre-Republic to Present (Fort Worth, TX: Texas Christian University, 2018): 2.
- Ibid, 4.
- Claire Demers, A Culture of Capital Punishment: A Look at Texas and the Death Penalty from Pre-Republic to Present (Fort Worth, TX: Texas Christian University, 2018): 8.
- Gerald M. LaPorte, “Wrongful Convictions and DNA Exonerations: Understanding the Role of Forensic Science,” National Institute of Justice. 2017. Web.
- Justin Chan, “’The Phantom’: The Unjust Execution of Carlos DeLuna.” Innocent Project. 2021. Web.
- “Timothy Cole,” Innocent Project. 2021. Web.
- “Melissa Elizabeth Lucio v. The State of Texas (Concurring),” 2021. Web.