Veteran Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Tom Price wrote last week that “[e]volving societal values indicate that the death penalty should be abolished in its entirety.”
From his front row seat as a trial court and appellate court judge for forty years, the Dallas Republican observed that prosecutors and juries increasingly are rejecting the death penalty in favor of a life-without-parole sentence because life in prison preserves public safety without the danger of a wrongful execution.
Texas led the nation in exonerations in 2013, a record-breaking year for exonerations nationwide. “[I]t is wishful thinking to believe that this State will never execute an innocent person,” Judge Price wrote. In fact, the danger of a wrongful execution has grown due to inadequate legal help and severe procedural rules, rising to become “an irrational risk that should not be tolerated by our criminal justice system.”
Judge Price’s conclusion that the death penalty is unconstitutional is consistent with the writings of several United States Supreme Court justices who, after ruling on death penalty cases for decades, ultimately realized that the death penalty is unworkable. Justice Harry Blackmun famously recanted his support for the death penalty in 1994. “From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death,” he wrote. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell told his biographer, after he had left the Court, that “capital punishment should be abolished.”
Justice John Paul Stevens announced in 2008 that he had “reach[ed] the conclusion that the imposition of the death penalty represents ‘the pointless and needless extinction of life with only marginal contributions to any discernible social or public purposes. A penalty with such negligible returns to the State [is] patently excessive and cruel and unusual punishment violative of the Eighth Amendment.'”
Judge Price dissented from the court’s 6-3 decision refusing to stay the execution date set for Scott Panetti, a severely mentally ill man who represented himself at his capital murder trial in 1995. Wearing a cowboy costume with a purple bandana and attempting to call over 200 people to the witness stand, including the Pope, John F. Kennedy, Jesus Christ, and his own alter ego, “Sarge,” Mr. Panetti, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, was found guilty and sentenced to death.
The Constitution forbids executing people with intellectual disability and insane people, and as Judge Price wrote, there is “no rational reason for carving a line between the prohibition on the execution of [an intellectually disabled] person or an insane person while permitting the execution of a severely mentally ill person.” Judge Price’s dissent was one of three powerful dissenting opinions from Texas appeals judges last week concluding that Mr. Panetti’s severe mental illness renders him categorically ineligible for the death penalty.
This morning, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit stayed Mr. Panetti’s execution, which was scheduled to take place at 6 p.m. Central time today.