In Harris County, Texas, The Death Penalty Is Applied With A Judicial Rubber Stamp

from the they're-just-convicts.-why-try-harder? dept

When life is literally on the line, Texas judges are slouching their way towards another paycheck.

In these cases, Harris County post-conviction prosecutors have authored and proposed 21,275 separate findings of fact and conclusions of law and the Harris County courts have adopted 20,261 of the prosecutors’ proposed findings verbatim: an adoption rate of 95%. In fact, judges in Harris County have adopted all of the prosecutors’ findings verbatim in 183 out of 191 sets of findings, or 96%. In the vast majority (167) of those cases, the judges simply signed the state’s proposed document without changing the heading.

The research conducted by Jordan Stelker, James Marcus, and Thea Posel — a review of 199 capital post-conviction cases that flowed through Harris County’s (TX) massive broken court system — also notes that eight Harris County courts never rejected the state’s conclusions, even when the findings were “plainly contradicted by the record.”

The full report [PDF] contains details of handful of cases where the rubber stamp was applied by judges with genuine indifference to the people they were sentencing to death. In many of these cases, no consideration was given for convicts’ mental health problems, traumatic childhoods, good behavior while incarcerated, or anything else that may have proved mitigating.

[T]he findings of fact and conclusions of law in Dexter Johnson’s case suggest that the problem of one-sided rubber-stamping may be more prevalent than a review of document headings would indicate. Instead of a signed copy of the prosecutor’s proposed findings summarily adopted as the findings and conclusions of the trial judge, the findings of fact and conclusions of law document in Johnson’s case is captioned “The Trial Court’s Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and Order of the Court.” However, a line-by-line comparison against the state’s proposed findings and conclusions indicates that the two documents are entirely identical in substance, with the exception that the court’s findings do not bear the prosecutor’s signature block or certificate of service and the spacing has been rearranged to make up for the extra room left at the bottom of the last page by the omission of the signature block. The prosecutor’s proposed findings and the trial court’s adopted findings are written in the same distinctive font and share the same mistake in numbering in the final set of conclusions of law. Both sets are file-stamped on February 24, 2010, and Judge Denise Collins signed the document captioned “The Trial Court’s Findings” on the same day.

Not even a copy-paste job. Just some mild alteration to transpose the judicial approval over the prosecution’s signatures. Taking the state’s version verbatim meant ignoring all of this:

The issues in Johnson’s case were not boilerplate—he had a history of low IQ scores, schizophrenia, brain damage, and learning difficulties, and the claims raised in his habeas application attack both the voluntariness of his statements to police and the effectiveness of his appellate counsel.

And the date on the rubber-stamped document means something shady happened in that judge’s court.

However, circumstances indicate that the trial judge either signed the findings authored by the state the very same day they were filed (changing the heading herself), received an ex parte copy of the state’s proposed findings to consider before they were filed with the court, or was provided with a clean and revised copy of the state’s proposed findings by the prosecutor to further streamline the rubber-stamping process.

As the report points out, several factors have contributed to same-day service from Harris County judges and their rubber stamps. First, an inordinate amount of capital cases are routed through these courts as the result of jurisdiction allocation. A well-intentioned effort to keep capital reviews close to the courts of conviction was supposed to allow judges already familiar with these cases to make decisions on post-conviction habeas corpus reviews. Instead, it has just created a backlog of cases in courts already stymied by the lack of clerks.

But the biggest reason for Harris County rubber-stamping is this: zero accountability.

The CCA (Court of Criminal Appeals) is no doubt aware of the ubiquity of rubber-stamping and yet affords deference to such findings in the same manner as those produced after more extensive, independent proceedings (evidentiary hearings followed by independent court-drafted orders). Similarly, federal courts within the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit routinely defer to fact findings contained in rubber-stamped state-proposed orders, insisting such deference is mandated by the federal habeas statute. So long as rubberstamping continues to receive the imprimatur of the CCA and the federal courts, state post-conviction judges have little incentive to abandon the practice.

It’s not a justice system. It’s a rigged game where the prosecution runs the table nearly 100% of the time. And it’s happening in a state that has always taken time to brag about how many criminals it puts to death. The state’s courts are complicit in the removal of anything adversarial from a supposedly adversarial process. The system in Harris County appears to be broken at every level, starting with the routine jailing of the presumptively innocent (thanks to absurdly-high bail amounts and an adamant refusal to release arrestees on their own recognizance) and running all the way up to the rubber-stamping of prosecutors’ paperwork in death penalty cases.

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Comments on “In Harris County, Texas, The Death Penalty Is Applied With A Judicial Rubber Stamp”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

If you're not working, why are we paying you?

Sound to me like the judges aren’t actually serving any purpose for the public, and could be easily replaced with a bit of software that simply scans a document and prints ‘accepted’ at the bottom. And if they’re not actually doing anything or demonstrating any interest in that ‘work’ thing, sounds like trimming the positions would be a quick and easy way to lower the budget with minimal impact.

Perhaps if they had to face the possibility of having to work for their paycheck they’d care a bit more about the job, rather than simply signing whatever’s put in front of them.

Anonymous Coward says:

the prison industry

It’s worth remembering that Texans consider their state’s enormous body-count of executions as a source of pride, not shame.

Just north of Harris County is the town of Huntsville, which is basically a gigantic prison complex surrounded by the homes of the people who work there. Huntsville has executed hundreds if not thousands of prisoners over the years, and is also the home of the Texas Prison Museum, a top tourist attraction where visitors can view some of the state’s renowned instruments of death such as “Old Sparky”.

Anonymous Coward says:

The Alternative is too Much Time

In Japan, they just hanged the perpetrators of the 1995 Japanese subway Sarin gas attack. Thirteen people died and thousands were seriously injured.

I like the fact Japan does not give prior notice of an execution. I wondered why I never heard the out come of the terrorists until this July.

ShadowNinja (profile) says:

This is sadly not new, Texas already executed an innocent man

This is sadly not new. Texas is the state that pretty unambiguously murdered an innocent man for the crime of setting his own house on fire and murdering his kids in the fire. His name was Cameron Todd Willingham.

There were some major problems with virtually all the evidence used to convict him, including the fact that forensic science for fire investigations advanced a ton from when he was first convicted to when he was executed. Yet Texas courts ignored the experts and the serious doubts they raised and executed him anyway.

Link #1

Link #2

If you’ve heard the name Cameron Todd Willingham before, that’s probably because he’s become a rallying cry for anti-death penalty advocates ever since his execution. He’s frequently cited as evidence for why the death penalty should be abolished.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: long list of fellonies is not an excuse for court failure

ShadowNinja, keep your protection of murders as an anti firearm nut/ pro victim stance you teach. Luckily for the rest of society, you have not been called to jury duty.

Your two links suck big wads of phloem.

The progressive left makes me as sick as the religious right.

Christenson says:

Re: Re: long list of fellonies is not an excuse for court failure

Except, here in Virginia a few years ago, they almost executed a retarded man for a crime he did not commit because the cops fed him the details over time as they coerced a confession from him.

The death penalty resembles a freight train…once it starts rolling, it is very hard to stop, and the facts just seem to get ground up under the wheels. Prosecutors are famous for not wanting to let go, even in the face of reasonably certain contrary forensic evidence.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: long list of fellonies is not an excuse for court failure

As ever, nice to see the self-proclaimed right wing coming back with a detailed breakdown of why the OP and his links were wrong, along with chance for rebuttal and reasonable debate, in order the discussion can take place and others reading the discussion can come across to your point of view.

No, wait, you came back with zero reasoning, childish insults and partisan moronic namecalling. My mistake.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: long list of fellonies is not an excuse for court failure

Better still, he seems to think that ragging on the “religious right” somehow makes his comment “fair and balanced.”

While I don’t like the idea of paying to keep someone in relative comfort for life while his victims rot in shallow graves (or not), I’d rather not see innocent people executed to satisfy the depraved lusts of a public more interested in revenge (on someone, anyone) than in seeing justice done.

The right to legal counsel has been eroded in countries that practice austerity to the point of being a joke. Have you seen The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken? It’s an eye-opener. I follow him (her?) on Twitter. Great source of UK legal matters information.

So yeah, while I get the idea of a death penalty on principle, in practice it kills innocent people so I’m having none of it. It’s bad enough when innocent people are jailed for decades on dodgy evidence, but at least we can set them free.

Anonymous Coward says:

Ultimately the rubber stamp is in the hands of the Harris County residents. This isn’t a system that’s gone bad independent of the constituency despite what the article would have you believe. These people are COMPLICIT with the acts of their local legal system. People don’t want justice, they want revenge. They want to show off those hangings and executions as badges of honor while trying to make themselves feel big and powerful by beating down those that can’t defend themselves. The people of Harris Counties are the bullies that put that stamp in the hands of those judges and ultimately they are responsible for all the blood shed.

And you know what? They want it to be that way.

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