Ferguson, Staten Island, Jasper

I don’t really know how to describe it other than an epidemic. In two high profile incidents, white Police Officers have shot and killed unarmed African-American men. In Ferguson, in the case of Michael Brown and Officer Darren Wilson, Brown was shot six times by Wilson after the two got into some type of altercation. Wilson claimed that he fired in self defense against the allegedly aggressive Brown, and he had to use lethal force since Brown was apparently “charging” at him. The majority of witnesses claim that Brown had his hands up, was not resisting or some variation thereof. As I explained earlier in The Daily Texan, I think the evidence was insufficient for a conviction, but the very low bar to an indictment should have easily been cleared.

Then, there is the case of Eric Garner in Staten Island. Approached by NYPD on suspicion of selling individual cigarettes, a rather low-level citation offense, Garner began arguing with officers. After repeatedly, calmly and peacefully attempting to argue with the officers, he was placed in a chokehold and tackled to the ground, where he was quite literally strangled to death. This, despite the fact that NYPD has prohibited chokeholds for about 20 years. The entire sickening incident was caught on video. Still, a grand jury this past evening no-billed Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who killed lynched Garner.

Additionally, as the Texas Observer fills us in on (c/o the Beaumont Enterprise), a grand jury in Jasper County has opted to no-bill a white Police Officer who brutally beat up an unarmed African-American woman on video at the police station. Thankfully, unlike the other two incidents, this woman — who was accused of petty shoplifting — survived the encounter. Jasper, of course, has its own terrifying history of racism.

All this is to say there is, in fact, an epidemic of police brutality in this country. The vast majority of Police Officers are honest, hardworking people who put their lives on the line for the safety of the community; but some harbor prejudicial tendencies and must be dealt with appropriately. For some time now, I have endorsed body cameras for officers. Generally speaking, they have been supported in a bipartisan manner.

President Barack Obama has requested about $263 Million from congress to dole out these devices — which record officers’ interactions with the general public — to local departments. Similarly, District Attorney-elect Susan Hawk in Dallas County, a Republican, has announced a plan to use surplus funds to equip Dallas PD and other departments with the devices.

KHOU has even reported, just a few hours ago, that Mayor Annise Parker plans on buying body cameras for local police with or without federal funds. I’m still a rather vehement supporter of this technology, as it minimizes he said/cop said situations. However, the Garner case still proves that a video is not enough to ensure justice is carried out. The good news, however, is that it removes the ambiguity and doubt that surrounds these cases. For example, in the Michael Brown case, I am not sure if Wilson was justified in his response or not, so I think there should have been a trial but — given the evidence known for certain — I don’t know if I would have voted for a conviction. In Garner’s case, however, there is almost no doubt in my mind that the Officer committed cold-blooded second degree murder.

However, in order to truly fix the problem, the grand jury system needs to be reformed. State Senator John Whitmire (D-Harris County) has a long overdue idea in eliminating the venal key-man grand jury system, though it is worth noting that both the Ferguson and Staten Island no-billing occurred through random selection. I think the only way to solve this is to convert grand juries into far more temporary entities, operating on summons like petit juries, which may not be totally representative of the community but are still better than grand juries.

Additionally, I think states should change pertinent laws regarding the burden of proof for police officers accused of such crimes, clarifying that it is rather low. The reason we have such easy indictments in this country is that convictions are unusually hard — compared to the rest of the world — to achieve.

I realize these tweaks to state laws are quixotic, especially in Texas, but they appear to be the most effective way to resurrect some modicum of justice to our twisted world.

The Panetti execution

On Wednesday, Texas plans on executing a man named Scott Panetti. The underlying details of the capital murder in question have been delineated sufficiently previously, namely in an editorial I recently participated in for The Daily Texan, in which the editorial board not only argued for clemency in his case but for the abolition of the death penalty in general (something Texpatriate did last August). The basics are that Panetti, who murdered two people in the early 1990s, is severely mentally ill, to the extent that no reasonable medical professional could certify him as competent for execution under the standard set by the Supreme Court in the 2007 case of Panetti v. Quarterman.

And yet, perhaps unsurprisingly, Texas is soldiering on with the execution nonetheless. His attorneys, after reading about the tentative December 3rd execution date in the newspaper, quickly appealed up the ladder of the Texas appellate system. On Wednesday, the Court of Criminal Appeals (the highest criminal court in the state) ruled 5-4 against granting a stay of execution. The per curiam decision, however, did included the concurrence of the court’s lone ostensible Democrat, Judge Larry Meyers. As I noted in May, I’m not really a fan of Meyers, and there are plenty of Republicans on the court I like far more than him. They include Judge Elsa Alcaca, who wrote a blistering dissent, as well as Judge Tom Price, who wrote an individual opinion calling for the abolition of the death penalty.

Price, first elected in 1996, chose not to run for a fourth six-year term this year and will leave office in January. In his bombastic six page dissent, which you can find at this link, he explained in careful detail both his steadfast opposition to Panetti’s execution as well as to capital punishment altogether. One by one, Price dismantled the arguments for the death penalty, before chronicling his own personal journey. It is all eerily reminiscent of Justice Harry Blackmun’s big change of heart in the 1990s. Like Blackmun, Price will no longer “tinker with the machinery of death.” It’s a shame he won’t be on the court much longer, although it makes senses; no death penalty opponent could survive a statewide Republican primary.

Today, as the Texas Tribune reports, the Board of Pardons and Paroles voted unanimously to deny Panetti any type of commutation, clemency or reprieve. The only other state recourse would be one 30 day delay by Governor Rick Perry, which appears rather unlikely. Accordingly, Panetti’s lawyers have appealed the case to the US Supreme Court. Who knows what the Supreme Court will do, but the odds are placed squarely against Panetti in this instance.

This case, like most every other capital murder case, involves a totally reprehensible crime. Panetti brutally murdered two people. And while he is severely mentally ill, he is not so delusional that he literally does not understand the distinction between right and wrong. He understands, to some extent, that he erred in killing two innocent people.

All this is to say that I do not want him to spend any of his days as a free man. But the Supreme Court has held for many decades that a higher standard exists for capital punishment. And while I believe the barbaric punishment to be, in all cases, cruel and unusual, even tepid proponents should see that the execution of Panetti is wrong.