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.

Statewide Judicial update

A couple months ago, I noted that all three seats on the Court of Criminal Appeals up for election in 2014 would be open, as every pertinent incumbent would be retiring. Similarly, with the elevation of Justice Nathan Hecht to the role of Chief Justice, his seat will hold a special election in 2014, meaning four of the seats on the Supreme Court will be up for election. However, it appears at press time that they will all include incumbents.

All these Supreme Court slots have no other candidates besides the incumbents. The three Court of Criminal Appeals slots, however, each respectively have two candidates. All aforementioned candidates are Republicans, and all signs suggest that the Democrats will not even contest most of these seats, as they have typically done in the past.

First things first, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, who was just recently appointed to the position by Governor Perry, will run for re-election for the Chief slot (Position #1). He is hitherto unopposed. Justices Jeffrey Boyd and Phil Johnson will also run for re-election for Positions 7 and 8, respectively. Justice Jeff Brown, a former Houston Appeals Court Judge who was recently appointed by Governor Perry to replace Hecht’s associate justice seat, will run for re-election to Position 6.

Click here to read about the candidates for the Court of Criminal Appeals!

3 Open Seats on Court of Criminal Appeals

The Texas Tribune reports that all three seats up for election on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 2014 –all Republican– will be open. The incumbents, Cathy Cochran, Tom Price and Paul Womack, are all opting to retire.

The judges, two of whom have served since the State first went unanimously Republican (1997) and one (Cochran) who has served since 2001, are not by any means the deans of the Court. Distinct from the Texas Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals has been remarkably consistent in its members of the years.

Only two members of the court, including Cochran, took office during Perry’s administration. Five were selected or elected during George W. Bush’s governorship, with two more taking office when Ann Richards was the Governor. This is remarkable, considering how long Perry has been Governor and how extensive his influence has been in just about every other part of the State’s bureaucracy.

The Court of Criminal Appeals is absolutely just as bad as any court comprised of 9 elected Texas Republicans would be (Sharon Keller, anyone?), but it could still be a lot worse. As the Tribune article reminds us, those same three Justices made up a bare majority that forbid the execution of a mentally ill man earlier this month, specifically the forced medication of a mentally ill man for the purposes of execution.

Given that Cochran, who took office in 2001, is the second most recent addition to the Court, the Tea Party holds minimal influence. All of this could change with the THREE open seats that the Court now has leading into the 2014 primaries. The Tribune article notes that eight people are eying running for these seats, but do not provide the names. I will have to do some research on this in the next day or two.

As I have said before, I have very little faith in the ability of Democrats to run candidates for these Statewide seats, ESPECIALLY the Statewide seats. I have been asked recently if this means I have a diminished faith in the leadership of the State party, and, simply put, that is not the case. I am still just as optimistic that Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa is making the inroads to turn the party around, but have always maintained that this is not the fault of leadership, but of the people themselves. There is a profound enthusiasm gap.

Both the Texas Supreme Court & the Court of Criminal Appeals saw three seats up for election last year. Democrats only contested two seats, one in each court. The candidates recruited, Michele Petty & Keith Hampton, respectively, were very good candidates who had everything going for their campaigns except that it was the wrong year for a Democrat in Texas. It was the other seats that are the most obvious examples of the gap, however. If the Texas GOP failed to recruit an establishment candidate for the same seats, you would see droves of conservatives vying for the post on ego alone. The same is missing from the Democratic Party in this State.

This enthusiasm gap is what, more than anything, makes life so frustrating for people like Hinojosa. There are only so many well-versed, liberal lawyers in this State with political talent. If they all turn down, there is not so much Party leadership may do. I noticed the same thing in Houston’s municipal politics, although the enthusiasm gap encompasses both sides of the aisle there.

Simply put, Democrats need to hit the ground running NOW to contest these seats. I sound like a broken record now when I say it, but 2014 is important not because we can win, but because we can never win until we put up a fight in an election. Because our record in 2012, 2010 & 2008 was more of a whimper. I truly hope that, when I find out who the 8 people already vying for the seat are, I find out at least one is a Democrat.