Rallying around the case of a black man sentenced to death on racially charged testimony, opponents of capital punishment asked state lawmakers on Tuesday to create a new avenue of appeal for death row inmates in Texas.
But despite national attention to the case, including support from a surviving victim, a lawyer who worked for the prosecution and a former governor, several members of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee called the proposal unnecessary.
Under House Bill 2458, convicted murderers could challenge their sentences by proving that race played a significant role in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty. While statistical evidence of a district attorney's record on seeking the death penalty could be offered, other evidence particular to the case would be required. To qualify for a hearing, defendants would have to accept an alternate sentence of life without parole. Kentucky and North Carolina have enacted similar laws.
Of the 304 inmates on death row in Texas last year, according to the most recent count by the Death Penalty Information Center, 122 were black, 89 were white and 89 were Latino.
"We know," said Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, "that blacks and Hispanics are overrepresented in Texas on death row."
Thompson cited the case of Duane Buck, a black man sentenced to death in 1997 for the murder of his former girlfriend and another man. At Buck's trial, a state psychologist listed race as one of several factors in describing the danger he would continue to pose. Though the psychologist was called to the stand by defense lawyers, a prosecutor emphasized the testimony in her closing argument.
Later, John Cornyn, the attorney general at the time, identified the case as among six in which race had played an inappropriate role in imposing death sentences. The other inmates have all received new sentencing hearings. They have all been resentenced to death.
Buck has not received a new hearing. One of the prosecutors in his case has signed a petition on his behalf, along with others including a woman he shot and former Gov. Mark White. The campaign has made national news.
At the hearing Tuesday, Rep. Steve Toth, a Republican from the Woodlands, expressed a lack of familiarity with the case. He called the use of race as a factor "shocking."
Yannis Banks, a spokesman for the state chapter of the NAACP, offered statistics dating from the 19th century to the present day.
"Race continues to play an undeniable role in Texas' use of the death penalty," he testified.
Another witness, Kristin Houlé, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish to Death Penalty, told the committee cases involving white victims lead more frequently to death sentences.
"Our criminal justice system seems to value the lives of white victims above all others," she testified.
Republicans on the committee questioned her sharply. Rep. Jeff Leach of Plano said the bill would lead to "unintended consequences," including new appeals from every black and Latino inmate on death row.
And Toth, minutes after asking for basic information about the Buck case, started citing its particulars in a forceful argument against the bill.
"It's a footnote that someone that the defense called said it was because he was black," Toth said, arguing that the Buck jury had more likely been swayed by the horrors of his crimes than by his race.